Breaking Through the Status Quo

Breaking Through the Status Quo

By David Maxfield

Dear David,

How do you respond to someone who states, “But we’ve always done it this way,” as a response to change? My experience tells me that it’s a comfort-level response that says, “I really don’t understand what you are suggesting.” Progress is crucial for success but when the people who drive progress don’t understand new ideas or don’t want to explore them, it could drive talent to competitors. How do we elegantly address this?

Pushing Progress

Dear Pushing Progress,

Change is not always difficult. For example, when I get a new car, I manage to adapt to its more comfortable seats and new-car smell with hardly a hiccup. When people hate change, it’s because they don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs. The solution is to 1.) Make sure they understand the benefits of the change, and 2.) Get them to explain the costs as they see them. The difficult part of this solution is that there is a third element: “Who owns the decision?” Clarifying the decision rights is often the sticky element.

I’ll share a few ideas on each element.

1. Explain the Benefits

Explain the benefits before examining the costs. The goal is to find benefits that are likely (that the person can believe in) and that are valued (that the person cares about). Don’t assume that the person sees the benefits exactly as you do. And don’t assume they will be motivated by the same benefits that motivate you.

Consider benefits for the customer, the team, the job, and for the individual’s personal development:

  • Customer: What are the benefits for customers? Better reliability, quicker deliveries, additional product features, improved service, etc.
  • Team: What are the benefits for the team or the broader organization? Consistency across teams, better information, less effort, etc.
  • Job: What are the benefits for how the job gets done? Improved quality, reduced cycle time, lower costs, etc.
  • Development: What are the benefits for the individual’s skills or career? More valuable skills, more current skills, etc.

2. Examine the Costs

Get the person to explain what they see as the downsides of the change. Group these downsides into two categories: transition costs (the short-term costs of moving from one process to another) and permanent costs (the long-term inadequacies of the new process).

  • Transition Costs: Most changes involve some transition costs, such as learning the new system, troubleshooting the new system, becoming comfortable with the new system, etc. Try to identify as many of these costs as possible in an open discussion. Your goal should be to anticipate and have a plan to reduce as many transition costs as possible. Often, it’s these transition costs that cause people to hate change.
  • Permanent Costs: No new system is perfect. Most will have at least a few features that are inferior to the current system. Ask the employee to help you identify these and the impacts they will have on customers, teams, jobs, and development. Sometimes, the employee will be aware of a cost you haven’t considered—one that would cause you to reverse course on the change.

3. Clarify Decision Rights

How will the decision about the change be made? Does it require a consensus where anyone could veto it? Is it your decision to make? Or does someone else “own the decision”?

We ask leaders to consider three questions about their decisions: Who needs to have input into the decision? Who will make recommendations regarding the decision? Who will ultimately decide?

As a leader, it’s important to explain to your employees what their role is. Often, you want employees’ input or recommendation, but you will decide. They need to know that asking for their ideas doesn’t give them veto power.

It sounds as if you may be encountering some ambiguity over these decision rights, or the person might be feeling unheard. My own approach is to begin by getting as many facts on the table as possible—by exploring the benefits and the costs—and to explain how the decision rights will work.

After the decision has been made, I reiterate the pluses and minuses I’ve heard from them—in part to prove I was listening. I explain the decision, and give it my support. Then I ask them to help me make the decision a success. Once the decision has been made, I want their commitment rather than more questioning.

Best Wishes,


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