Thursday, February 19, 2015

Change Does Not Have to Be That Difficult

”It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” 

Charles Darwin was aware of this in the 19th century, and it is probably even truer today. Unfortunately, the difficulty of change seems to be more talked about than the need for it. Why is it so difficult?

Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s theory of two systems gives a reasonable explanation to why:  Most of our thinking is made in the system of intuition which is fast, effortless and associative. Consequently most of our decisions are governed by habit. Activating and running the other, slower, conscious system requires considerably more effort – explaining the difficulty of breaking habits to promote change (Schrage, 2003).

While this theory gives explanations, other studies provide opportunities  - suggesting that once faced with difficult decisions, individuals need some extra motivation or confidence to make changes affecting status quo (McGonigal, 2010). Leaders can be that push for change – and I will therefore outline five effective steps that leaders can use to overcome barriers.

1. Know who you are

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” 

I interpret it as though Leo Tolstoy understood that in order to lead others, you must first know yourself. A course in Self Leadership[1] (similar to the idea presented in “The Leader Within”) taught me that once you are able to let your values and personality shape your leadership, you can be the authentic leader that convincingly drives change. (Johnson, 2004) Fortunately, employees in nonprofits more often perceive that the nonprofit’s goals are aligned with their own values and objectives. (Watson, 2010) When you are convinced about that the organization needs change, it is time to create a sense of urgency (Hamel, 1989).

2. Get everyone aboard

Use environmental factors to outline why change is important to employees and potentially also other stakeholders (Hamel, 1989). The goal of this step in the process is to involve, make sure that people are informed about the change and the reasons for it. Employees and other stakeholders have valuable insight and ideas on how to improve the organization. Furthermore, involving the people affected by the change makes them feel ownership of the process. If you were to exclude individuals from this process, it could result in the feeling that they have lost control of their territory, with resulting resistance to change (Moss Kanter, 2012).

3. Develop a strategic plan

When it is time for the organization to start wandering, strategic planning makes sure it does so with a purpose (Bryson, 2010). The process involves several steps, but formulating the strategic plan helps overcome barriers because it focuses the organization’s attention on the target, communicates it and motivates individuals to contribute (Hamel, 1989). It also forces the team to foresee and work proactively with implementation difficulties (Bryson, 2010).

4. Invest in change

A leader should enable the organization to achieve its purpose – and if change is needed, the leader has to make sure employees get the chance to gain the knowledge needed for implemtation (Johnson, 2004 & Moss Kanter, 2012). A leader has to invest not only in necessary education, training and support systems, but in time, so that the ones most effected by the change do not become overloaded. (Moss Kanter, 2012)

5. Evaluate

It is crucial to track the progress towards the targets– that way the change process becomes unavoidable for everyone in the company (Hamel, 1989). Furthermore, in setting targets and evaluating, it is important to consider the many layers of nonprofit accountability (Ebrahim, 2010).


Bryson, John M. Strategic Planning and the Strategy Planning Circle. In: Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
Hamel, Gary. & Prahalad, C.K. 1989. Strategic Intent. Harvard Business Review, pg 63-76.
Ebrahim, Alnoor. The Many Faces of Nonprofit Accountability. In: Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.
Johnson, Cecil. 2004. Look at how employees see you. Wall Street Journal. 12/20
McGonigal, Kelly. 2010. Why Habits Are Hard to Change (And Printers Hard to Buy). Psychology Today. Retrieved from:
Moss Kanter, Rosabeth. 2012. Ten Reasons People Resist Change. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from:
Schrage, Michael. 2003. Daniel Kahneman: The Thought Leader Interview. Strategy+Business. Winter 2003. Issue 33. Retrieved from:
Watson, Mary R. & Abzug, Rikki. Effective Human Resources Practices. In: Renz, David O, ed. 2010. The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco, CA.

[1] A course by SelfLeaders, in cooperation with Stockholm School of Economics