Ever since delivering a guest lecture on organizational behavior and change for a College of Charleston class last week, I can’t stop thinking about the year 1996 and its impact on 2017.

Why 1996? Almost all of the students in the class are seniors who were born in 1996.

For a business school class, 1996 is significant in another way. Harvard Business School Press published John Kotter’s book, Leading Change, a major contribution to the field of organizational change management that year.

Other seminal events from 21 years ago seem even older. When I “Googled” 1996, I saw that the Dow Jones Industrial closed above 6,000 for the first time. (This year, the Dow broke a new record, closing above 23,000.) Apple Computer, the company Steve Jobs co-founded, bought Jobs’ company NeXt.

Back then, I worked in the LA office of a major HR consulting firm. Our laptops were stand-alone machines. My colleagues and I exchanged files with each other and our administrative assistants via floppy disks as we didn’t yet have email. We used our cell phones for making phone calls while driving.

Now everything is mobile and networked. Many businesses also have expanded their focus from performance to sustainability, including the triple bottom line of profits, people, and the planet.

As for organizational change, as I explained to the students, back when they were born, we consultants and our clients thought we could “manage change” one change project at a time.

Well, that doesn’t happen anymore now that we live and work in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. Now if you stop changing, you and your organization can die. 

For example, one student who works part-time in retail talked about how her employer both cooperates and competes with Amazon.com as it tries to protect itself from showrooming.

Another shared her experience of switching how she views and uses straws. Before interning in the College’s sustainability office, the student explained that she considered straws an easy and hygienic way to drink beverages. Now she’s joined her colleagues in giving up straws for the Stop Sucking campaign to keep plastic from its disastrous effects on marine life and ecosystems

Yet the models of organizational change described in the class reader have not kept up with business in 2017. Back in 2013 The Center for Effective Organizations of the University of Southern California deemed traditional change models as flawed and obsolete.

Furthermore, since Kotter published his eight-stage model, we’ve learned exponentially more in other fields. For example, advances in neuroscience and behavioral economics and design as well as psychology have influenced how we understand change and can make it happen for ourselves and others.

The emphasis is more humanistic now, focusing on how to help humans change within organizations. Research and practice (including my own) are showing the benefits of these three approaches:

  1. Match the purpose with the person. An individual will be more receptive to change if he or she believes in the purpose and sees the personal and social relevance of the change. That is, the change fits the individual’s core values, and the person’s social status will be helped rather than hurt by the change.
  1. Immerse the person into a new setting. When an individual is exposed to new people with different sets of experiences, the newcomer will become more aware of new ideas, different norms and values. To adapt, the newcomer will adjust the “mentalizing system” of his or her brain and start to think differently. The individual’s extra effort expended on thinking helps increase understanding of different perspectives, which helps the person become more open to changing how to think and act.
  1. Redesign the environment. When you change the existing environment or introduce someone into a different environment, the individual can’t rely on old habits. The person needs to do things differently, which requires getting out of “auto-response” mode. Then if you give them a “nudge,” that is steer them in a particular direction while preserving their freedom of choice, they’re inclined to adopt a new behavior.

The first two approaches are examples from neuroscience. Dr. Emily Falk, Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania, has been doing research in this area.

The third approach is an example from behavioral economics, popularized by the Nobel Prize winning economist Dr. Richard Thaler. Several students were aware of him and how “nudges” work.

For example, one student told us that the restaurant where she works serves drinks without straws. It’s their way of supporting #StopSucking while also reducing costs for an environmentally-unfriendly item. However, customers who ask for straws get one. This action has greatly reduced straw usage at the restaurant.

Interacting with these students reminded me of the adage: You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools and solutions.  Fortunately for these students, they don’t have to unlearn the old ways.

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