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How to Lead Change, a Primer

lpasqualis profile image Lorenzo Pasqualis Updated on ・9 min read

This post was first published (complete with images) on CoderHood as How to Lead Change, a Primer. CoderHood is a blog dedicated to the human dimension of software engineering.

On Change

Leo Tolstoy famously said, "Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself." Tolstoy's words are true today as much as they were true in his time. Life in the 1800s was very different, but people were not.

Today's tech industry, populated by smart people pushing hard to innovate one line of code at the time, is no exception. Intelligence comes with strong opinions and personalities. If you've worked in teams for a while, at some point, you probably wished that somebody could be more pleasant or reasonable.

In this dissertation, I take you on a guided tour of my model of individual and team dynamics in relation to change. In particular, I visit what I believe are essential aspects of the human condition that affect the mechanics of change for people and teams working on challenging problems with common goals. Since my expertise is in software making, I wrote with software developers and software engineering teams in mind. However, the same concepts most likely apply to a broader spectrum of realities.

What Defines An Individual

Change involves people, and people follow patterns that are rooted in what you could call "internal programming," or human firmware. To define a model of understanding of players in a team of software makers, I like to think of human firmware as defined by three main components:

  • Personality. You can envision personality as a lens that people use to look at the world or a set of filters that trigger our responses. Personality forms very early in life as the result of a combination of biological, parental, and social influences.
  • Habits. Habits are things that people repeatedly do, settled tendencies and practices.
  • Beliefs. Beliefs are a combination of knowledge, experience, accepted models of reality, data, facts, plans and views that we came to trust and believe.

The combination of personality, habits, and beliefs determine the behavior of an individual. Personality, habits, and beliefs are not necessarily consistent. In fact, as we'll see later, sometimes they evolve to be at odds with each other. When they are inconsistent, you have a state of cognitive dissonance which can create erratic behaviors, unhappiness, concerns, panic, and chaos.

People Resist Change

Ironically, we humans tend to resist change despite a desire to build innovations and influence others. We push for change because we need to modify the world to align it with our beliefs, thus actually reducing change. In other words, we are driven to change the world so that we don't have to change who we are.

Change erodes people's comfort zone, transforming familiar, known and understood realities into an unclear and potentially risky vacuum. Even though most things in life are unknown, unknowns are scary because they challenge our beliefs and habits; they are similar to shadows lurking in the dark that could jump out to get us.

Despite our comfort with the familiar, we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. We like to believe that it will be just like today. Given that we operate guided in large part by habits, more often than not we are right. We'll get up at the usual time, eat the usual food, commute to the usual workplace and work on the usual stuff. Sounds boring, but it is comforting and reassuring.

We are well aware that something unexpected could happen anytime, but chances are it won't, so we like to look at the road ahead as well paved, stable and well known. We make bets on stability and inertia, and we are usually right until we aren't.

People Don't Change Easily

Change is difficult because people, at their core, don't change quickly. Habits are hard to eradicate, and personalities have deep and strong roots. However, innovation requires constant change. Moreover, in the tech industry change is inevitable. The choices are to either deliberately design it and make it happen or to let it happen organically. Experience shows that a deliberate design brings better results, in most cases.

When change is needed, leadership pops into the picture; change management is one of the fundamental reasons for leadership to exist. Since most people dislike change, it is a responsibility, privilege, and burden of leadership to push for it. It is critical for leaders, who need to stay one level above the weeds and the minute details, to learn how to make it happen without generating panic and chaos and before external or uncontrollable factors force it.

The type of change that the tech industry push for is technological. However, leaders sometimes make the mistake of blurring the lines between technology, processes, and people. The risk is falling into the trap of wishing they could change people to make them fit a mold, plan or structure. That is a fallacy that, if unchecked, can have serious consequences.

Changing People

In general, you can't force people to change; they won't, and in most cases, you don't want them to. The unique prospectives and points of view that different people bring to the table are very valuable agents of innovation. Innovation without a diversity of ideas is like a meal without a variety of ingredients: bland and not very exciting.

In some cases, changing people's way to operate is necessary for the health of an organization. However, it is essential to understand what kind of change is needed or even possible. As we have seen earlier, when it comes to people, three main aspects could be the focus of change: habits, personalities, and beliefs. Those are very different, and I am going to discuss them separately.

Changing People's Habits

When somebody displays an undesirable habit, the temptation is to eliminate it. However, when you remove a habit, you leave a void. Our brain inevitably tries to resist change, and that void becomes subject to great inner-pressure. Without significant work, old habits tend to come back to fill the gap. As a result, eliminating a habit can be difficult. It is much easier to substitute bad old habits with good new ones, neutralizing the void and avoiding the pressure.

As a specific example, a classic "bad habit" of software engineers is to sit in one-on-one meetings with an open laptop. While a computer might be necessary in some cases (for example, during working sessions), it doesn't help one-on-one meetings where a closer personal connection is more desirable than the ability to take or read notes (or emails, or who knows what else). The vertical screen creates a barrier between two people and introduces a significant distraction.

If someone has the habit of taking or reading notes using a laptop during one-on-one meetings, a solution is to substitute the laptop with a traditional paper-notepad and a pen. Once you get used to it, it becomes a natural, healthy and beneficial habit. Personally, I take notes by hand, scan them (or take a picture with my phone) and upload the images on Evernote which has excellent OCR capabilities. Once in Evernote, I can do text-based searches, making it easy to find what I am looking for, anytime. If there is information I need during a one-on-one meeting, I write it down on my notepad before the meeting. That gives me what I need and also functions as meeting preparation.

If you are helping someone to change a habit, suggesting a new one is an excellent way to make progress. However, since change is hard, the person you are helping must want it.

Changing People's Personalities

I fundamentally do not believe that changing somebody's personality is desirable or realistic. Personality is more than a habit. It is the signature of an individual, a representation of who somebody is.

In theory, if somebody's specific personality-traits get in the way of their goals, it is possible for a good coach to help to make measurable progress over an extended period. However, for somebody to be coachable on a personality trait they need to:

  1. Understand the necessity of the change and the potential benefits, both professionally and personally.
  2. Seek help first (instead of being forced to seek help).
  3. Find a trusted coach.
  4. Be willing to work with the coach.

In other words, the coach can only be available to "support" the change and provide guidance and feedback, not force it.

Otherwise, Do Not Even Try

Unless the situation satisfies the four conditions above, I do not believe in attempting to adjust somebody's personality. That is true in all situations, but especially in business. It is a questionable thing to consider for the following reasons:

  • Even if you could (you can't), you would not want to create a team of people with the same personality traits. Lack of diversity reinforces bad habits, kills innovation, creates group-think and slows down progress.
  • The investment is too great; it would take years and is probably impossible.
  • Who said that "your way" is better? Even if it was better in the specific business context, people have a life outside of work, and their personality is what brought them there. They are who they are. Wanting to change them is arrogant and misguided.
  • If in some business context somebody's personality prevents them from being able to do their job, the organization should evaluate options. Attempting to change the person's personality should, in most cases, not be one of them. If there are no options, the organization should provide a generous severance package and cut ties. It is best for the organization and the individual.

Changing People's Beliefs

Beliefs come in the form of knowledge, accepted models of reality, data, facts, and plans. Beliefs are the only aspect of people that you can genuinely influence as part of a healthy organization.

In tech, reality changes all the time and beliefs need to be adjusted continuously to describe the world accurately. Changing somebody's beliefs can take the shape of:

  • Education and training. Often beliefs are rooted in ignorance. If there are existing knowledge and materials that explain something, education and training is by far the best way to change somebody's beliefs.
  • Brainstorming. If there is not enough existing knowledge and material to study, brainstorming can be an excellent way to align the beliefs of a group of people.
  • Decision and commitment. Sometimes there are many different ways to look at a particular issue, and no single belief or interpretation of the data seems to be perfect. Usually, that occurs when there is not enough information. In that case, if you can't gather more information, making a decision and a commitment to a specific approach and way of thinking might be necessary. Decisions and commitments eventually become new beliefs.
  • Logical arguments. Most of the time there is not enough specific information to guide the formation of beliefs. However, often some logical arguments and deductions can be applied to available data in combination with observations and (shudder) some assumptions. For example, when you walk you don't know for sure that the ground in front of you will be able to hold your weight. You don't and can't have enough information to make that decision without the shadow of a doubt. However, if the ground looks stable, you can reasonably believe that it is stable. That belief, formed by the visual information you have, experience and a few low-risk assumptions, is what allows you to walk freely every day.

Changing People's Behaviors

Behaviors are due to a combination of habit, personality, and beliefs. As mentioned above, I believe that it is possible to influence the habitual or the belief parts of behavior, but it is neither practical nor desirable to change the personality aspects of it.

Leaders who need to influence somebody's behavior must be able to differentiate between those aspects. They can help morph unproductive habits into healthier ones, change incorrect beliefs into correct ones, but should avoid attempting to change people's personalities.

Change Management in The Software Industry

The software industry is, in many ways, no different from any situation where groups of smart people work together to resolve difficult problems. Intelligent people often have strong opinions, and strong opinions are usually associated with difficult personalities.

Leaders must learn to analyze patterns of people and group behavior to discern what aspects of it is due to personalities, habits, and beliefs. Change management is a subtle art that takes years of deliberate practice to master but brings great rewards.

Change is hard, but in the software industry, it is a fact of life.


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lpasqualis profile

Lorenzo Pasqualis

@lpasqualis

I started writing software in 1984. Over the years I worked with many languages, technologies, and tools. I have been in leadership positions since the early 2000s, and in executive roles since 2014.

Discussion

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In other words, we are driven to change the world so that we don't have to change who we are.

This is worth repeating.