Change Management

Why is change management so hard?   I believe that it’s because most humans fear the unknown.  Change jeopardizes daily routines, modifies inter-personal relationships, and – most of all – forces us to deal with the unknown. 

From my point of view, one of the best books on dealing with change is Who Moved My Cheese? which tells the story of four creatures in a maze and how they react when their routine is changed (i.e., their cheese is moved).  The book makes the case that change itself is neither good nor bad; it has always happened and you should expect that it always will happen.  The only real danger is ignoring change. If you do so, you will eventually run out of cheese.

I’ve previously argued that the sudden change of big bang performance management won’t shock the proverbial frog into jumping out of the pot.  Instead, sustainable performance improvements coming from changing behaviors and Grinch-like heart growth.

Changing the behavior of one Grinch is hard but changing a larger group is substantially harder.  It’s too easy to suffer from “group think” and allow organizational inertia to set in.  A colleague recently suggested the following experiment to explain why change in large groups is difficult:

Place ten monkeys in a cage.  Hang a banana on a string out of their reach and place a set of stairs under it.  As soon as any one of the monkeys tries to climb the stairs to get the banana, spray all of monkey with cold water.  The monkey will immediately stop climbing the stairs.

Whenever a monkey tries to get the banana, repeat this same process.  Pretty soon, none of the monkeys will try to climb the stairs.  This is classic Skinner negative reinforcement

Now, replace one of the monkeys with one that has never been in the cage. This new monkey will likely try to climb the stairs to get the banana. However, the other monkeys will stop him – they don’t want to get sprayed with the water.

Next, replace another of the original ten monkeys.  The new monkey tries to get the banana but the others won’t let him.  Even the first newcomer tries to stop him, even though that monkey doesn’t know about the cold water.

Keep replacing the original monkeys with new ones, one at a time.  Every time the newest monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys stop him.  After a while, most of the monkeys have no idea why they shouldn’t climb the stairs but the group refuses to allow anyone to do it.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water.  Regardless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana.

Why not?  Because, as far as they know, that’s the way it’s always been done.  It’s institutional memory at work.

I doubt that this experiment is factual and, if it is, it’s probably not an ethical way to treat monkeys. In addition, humans are not the same as monkeys; reasoned arguments can influence behavior even when the wisdom of the crowds suggests otherwise.  Regardless, the experiment is a vivid reminder of organizational inertia and can explain why it’s hard to introduce change to large groups.

If it was your job to discover new ways to get the bananas, what would you do?

7 Responses to Change Management

  1. Jonathan says:

    The wordpress “possibly related posts” is a great discovery tool. I’d never heard of the experiment before and it pointed me to three other blogs that quote a similar version.

  2. […] use layoffs to handle difficult environments because they’ve always done so in the past.  Change management is hard. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Drops of […]

  3. […] A 2005 Harvard Business Review study of more than 100 corporations and thousands of executive assessments showed that culture influences leadership style more than any other factor.  Regardless of job function, employees who work in the same organization are 30% more likely to exhibit similar leadership styles than people who do the same job but work in different companies. Even strong leaders are susceptible to learned helplessness. […]

  4. chris horak says:

    great experiment … in my experience we always forget the reward/punishment element in change management.

    Culture in companies, is, imho, based on the institutional memory of punishment and reward (just like you described in your experiment) and if we want to change behaviour, we have change the reward and punishment parameters in a visible way.

    Yet what we seem to do, is to talk to the monkeys about the behavior we’d like to see and then act surprised if we dont see the change :=)


  5. […] the team.  I was trying to emphasize the dangers of group think so I reminded them of the story of ten monkeys in the cage.  I didn’t just want them to think outside the box but to band together to institutionalize […]

  6. Adrian De Tomas says:

    Bananas for monkeys it is easy goal! Let think about the difficulty around change management when you have to convice/seduce/motivate a group of people to achieve something that is not familiar nor desirable as the bananas for monkeys. In my opinion, one of the most diffcult tasks about change manangement is to unify the criteria in a group of people for doing something together to achieve a common goal that, sometimes, is not completely understood or signed off by all parties, but still equally important and heavily dependant on everyone’s effort. In the monkeys experiment, even before they start thinking about climbing the stair for the first time to grab the new “goal”, without a unified criteria on how to do it and a clear definition about why that is important, they will spend days, or years, debating about who should go first, if they have to go in pairs, if the really need to get that “thing” to survive and if the stair is the best way to achieve it, etc., etc.

  7. […] Change management provides an interesting story of experiment on change, and the author concludes that “the experiment is a vivid reminder of organizational inertia and can explain why it’s hard to introduce change to large groups.” […]

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