In search of a robust change model

Coping better with continuous change

Uwe Friedrichsen

15 minute read

Sunset over an inland sea (seen in Rügen, Germany)

In search of a robust change model

Change is hard.

But not for you, you might say. You embrace change.


If you think about it for a moment and are honest, probably you would admit that it depends. In some places you embrace change while in other places you dislike or even fight it.

Changed procedures require a lot of attention from the brain

We cannot be open to all kinds of change all the time. It would kill our productivity. Changing habits and routines requires slow thinking 1. Slow thinking consumes a lot of energy and we can only think about so much in slow thinking mode. Therefore, we need a lot of habits and routines to get through our days successfully.

Just think of brushing your teeth. You probably do not think about how to brush your teeth for a second. You just move your hands automatically. Actually, you probably think about a lot of things while brushing your teeth – everything but how to brush your teeth.

Now assume I would ask you to brush your teeth differently, maybe using the other hand or applying a different technique how to brush your teeth. You would not be able to focus on anything than how to brush your teeth correctly. Your brain needs to switch from fast to slow mode. You need all your attention to execute this unfamiliar procedure.

Would you follow my demand or stick to the routine you are used to?

It depends, I assume.

Change is limited (and limits us for a while)

While it would be a good mental exercise, changing our tooth brushing routine would also deprive us of all the other thinking we are used to do while brushing our teeth. Maybe we are used to mentally walk through the next few hours while brushing our teeth. Or something else. By changing our routine, our brain does not have the capacity for this. Instead, it completely needs to focus on the changed routine.

Thus, if everything would be new or different every day, we would not get anything accomplished. That is why we need a lot of routines and habits to get through our days successfully. 2

The other way round, it means that any kind of change requires a lot of effort we need to spend. We must laboriously unlearn the old routines and train the new routines until our brain has adopted them well enough that we do not need our complete focus anymore to execute them.

As our brain capacity and focus is limited, we cannot go for all changes possible. We have to choose the changes we want to implement. This means, we need some kind of personal change selection process. In the next section, we will discuss that this selection process is a lot less rational than most people think.

New tools trigger an emotional response

Let us come back to our tooth brushing example once more: Assume I would not simply ask you to brush your teeth differently. I would give you a new device you do not know and ask you to use it to brush your teeth. I would also tell you that it is much better than your old toothbrush. It would come with a big manual. You could also attend a free training how to use the device if you prefer a training over reading the manual.

Would you embrace the change and welcome the new device for cleaning your teeth? Or would ask me to *beep* off and stick with the toothbrush you are used to?

Again: It depends, I assume.

It would depend on a lot of factors:

  • How busy your mind is with other topics, i.e., if you have the mental capacity for picking up something new.
  • How many risks you see in using the new device compared to the benefits you expect from using the new device.
  • How much you like changing routines and habits in general.

All these factors would influence your decision. But you would not make a nice list of pros and cons and then rationally decide if you would use the new tool or rather reject it. Instead, all these factors together would unconsciously trigger an emotional response for or against the new tool.

Thus, in the end, decisions for or against adopting a change are basically always gut decisions, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves we made it in a completely rational fashion. 3

Do not get me wrong: This is perfectly normal behavior. This is how we as humans function. This is one of the reasons why we as a species still exist and did not become extinct thousands of years ago. This human trait might sometimes get into our way these days, but it is not abnormal, reprehensible behavior.

Before diving deeper into the decision making process, let me first add an observation: In our professional contexts, we often expect people to pick up new tools, procedures, organizational structures, rules and more all the time – and we expect them to do it happily without ever complaining. Often, we even expect people to start doing the new things without further explanations and just tell them to stop whining.

You see the problem, don’t you?

Perceived risks vs perceived benefits

Let me dive a bit deeper into why humans often respond so reluctantly to change, to a degree that cannot be explained just by the aforementioned efforts needed to learn the new routines and habits.

I developed a very simple change model for humans. It does not any scientific aspirations but based on my personal experience it works surprisingly well and it is quite useful to understand change reactions better. It simply says:

Humans only change if the perceived benefits outweigh the perceived risks.

Let me break down that sentence:

  • On the one side, there are the risks of changing as they are perceived by an individual. What could go wrong? Could the change put me in an unfavorable situation? Could my career be at risk? Could it result in more work? More stress? And so on.
  • On the other side, there are the perceived benefits, the things that the individual expects to be better after the change. Will some of my current stress or pain go away? Will it advance my career? Will it improve my reputation? Will I make more money? Will it be more fun? And so on.

Every person when confronted with an upcoming change will make such a subjective evaluation. Note the word “perceived” in front of “benefits” and “risks”. The evaluation is not only subjective. As written before, it will be rather a gut decision than a conscious decision.

As a result, the person will either feel the benefits will outweigh the risks or feel the risks will outweigh the benefits. In the first situation the person will embrace the change, in the second situation the person will reject it.

The result of the evaluation will be different for every person. Every person has an individual risk predisposition, i.e., how much that person is willing to take risks. Then every person has a different background, e.g., good or bad experiences with similar situations in the past. And so on. This means, the tipping point between embracing and rejecting a given change will be different for every single person.

Additionally, the worse a person experiences their situation or the expected consequences of not changing, the more likely the person will embrace the change. 4

Overall, it can be said the decision to embrace an upcoming change or not is very personal. And the decision is not made in a rational way, but is a gut decision. It will be different for each person and depends heavily on their individual risk predisposition as well as their past experiences and some more influencing factors.

Stable working models

There would be a lot more to add regarding change and the responses of humans towards change. But it should be clear that change is stressful for most humans. It means a lot of effort. It means a lot of perceived uncertainty. It means perceived risks. And so on.

As a consequence, most humans are wary of change. Usually, they embrace stability: Let us stick to the well-known routines as long as things still feel sort of okay. 5

In the past, it was relatively easy to accommodate this desire for stability in business life. Markets moved relatively slow and the companies dictated the speed of change – which typically was quite slow 6. Hence, companies were able to offer working models that were stable over quite long periods of time. Change was infrequent and if change was needed, the companies had enough time to deal with the inevitable resistance of the people affected.

As a consequence, the change rate was acceptable for most people. They had long enough periods of stability during which they could cling to a stable working model.

Continuous change as the only constant

This situation no longer exists for most of us. The markets have become very dynamic 7, uncertainty drives decision making, the digital transformation transforms our business and private lives all the time, and so on.

A bit pointedly, we could say: Change is the only remaining constant.

As a result, our working models change a lot more frequently. We need to adopt to the changing needs and opportunities due to changing markets demands, new technological possibilities, and so on as they appear. The years between changes in our working models of the past have become months, weeks or even days.

But this continuous adoption of new working models is highly stressful for the people involved –- most of us do not like the required efforts, the uncertainty, the perceived risks and all the other stressful emotions that come with change. To make things worse, most of us are expected to “function” flawlessly all the time at work – being highly productive and efficient all the time. But this is simply not possible if we are continuously expected to change.

As we have seen, change means a big part of our mental capacity is blocked by learning the new routines. This, in turn, means our productivity will suffer quite a bit for that period of time. We are even more likely to make more mistakes while learning the new procedures.

At the same time, we are usually expected to be maintain our full productivity. This means, we find ourselves in a place where we lose whatever we do. If we adopt the change, we will be punished for less productivity. If we do not change, we will be punished for not changing.

As a consequence, people tend to be in a continuous stressful state of subliminal or open resistance when confronted with change expectations all the time.

A robust change model

But the need for continuous change, for continuous adaptation in business life is real. We cannot simply ignore it. And it is also not helpful to fight it all the time.

But it is so stressful!

So, what can we do?

As always, I do not have a perfect solution to offer. But here is a little mental hack that helps me a lot.

The guiding idea is that people need some kind of stable anchor they can always come back to with all that change they are confronted with, some place that always feels familiar, known, safe.

We cannot find this place on the level of our working models anymore as we did in the past. They change way too often. But where can we find that place?

My suggestion is to go up one level from the working model and look at the change model 8. The change model knows about the change drivers and forces to take into account. It uses them to derive the particular change measures required and thereby defines the working model and how it evolves over times.

Such a change model can offer the stable anchor we are looking for while navigating the continuous change. With such a model, we can observe what is currently going on. We can reflect if our working model is still good enough to respond to it. We can decide when and where we need to adapt and where we can keep going with our current routines.

This does not only give us a stable anchor in that continuously changing world. It also gives us back a sense of control and autonomy. We actively navigate the change, we make the decisions ourselves and we are not helplessly buffeted by the continuous waves of change. This alone can help us a lot coping with change much better and in a less stressful way.

From my own experience, I can say that such a model is surprisingly robust. Once in a while, I learned about a new force or some new potential response pattern. But these changes did not make my existing change model obsolete. They simply integrated into it and became part of it.

This means if you are able to come up with a change model for yourself, you will very likely have your anchor for a long time.

The challenge of course is to set up the change model in the first place, to understand the relevant drivers, to understand the possible solution and mitigation patterns that are available to you – and sometimes think outside the box to make sure you do not miss extremely vital options.

I cannot simply share my own model here because such a model depends heavily on ourselves, our predispositions, our experiences and so on. Thus, my model most likely would be completely useless for you. You will need your own model and only you can come up with the model that suits your needs and options appropriately.

But if you can find such a robust change model that helps you to understand, why change happens and where it will lead you to, the change itself will become a lot easier for you. The uncertainty goes away and you feel in control. Of course, the change itself will still require some effort but as you deliberately decided to do it, it will feel a lot easier.

In summary:

Do not yearn for a stable working model. Strive for a robust change model instead.

Smart companies accept the temporary productivity drop

A final note before wrapping up: A robust change model does not change the fact, our productivity will suffer while we train our changed routines. Therefore, the smarter companies have accepted that – to put it a bit sloppily – “reduced productivity is the normal operations mode” of their employees.

Still, the continuously readjusted effectiveness of the work easily makes up for the reduced efficiency.

I know that not all companies are that smart, but to be frank: This kind of stupidity is hard to cure. Most likely, your improved effectiveness will compensate your reduced efficiency, but some companies are even too dumb to measure how effective the work of their employees is. They only measure how much they get done, no matter if the work creates any value or not.

If you should be unlucky enough to work in such a company: There are other, smarter companies around, and especially for IT experts the market is good at the moment …

Summing up

Change is hard. Changing behavior binds constrained mental capacity. Change also means uncertainty. People do not know exactly how the situation will turn out for them after the change has completed. Thus, they tend to evaluate the perceived risks and expected benefits. This evaluation is strictly personal, depending on individual risk predisposition, experiences, and more factors. It is not a rational process, but a gut decision.

As a consequence, most people tend to resist change often and are stressed a lot by today’s expectations of continuously adapting due to the “change is the only constant” environment. Instead of continuously changing, they yearn for some stability.

A change model that helps to understand the forces that drive change and to derive possible response patterns describing what we should change (and what we can leave as it is) can be very helpful in such a situation. It provides a surprisingly robust anchor to navigate our own change from and it gives us back a feeling of control.

Such a model is different for everyone, but if you are able to find your personal change model, it can reduce stress and resistance – both quite negative emotions – a lot. At least for me, it was that way.

I hope, I gave you some ideas to ponder – and maybe you already have an idea how your personal change model will look like.

Of course, there would be a lot more to say about change. Maybe, I will discuss some of it in some future blog post(s) …

  1. Fast and slow thinking according to the concepts described by Daniel Kahneman, see, e.g., his book “Thinking, fast and slow” ↩︎

  2. In more adverse environments, even our survival might depend on having enough well-trained habits and routines to make sure our brain has the capacity to process and respond to critical signals from our surroundings and is not busy focusing completely on what we are doing at the moment. ↩︎

  3. Be aware that our brain very often tricks us into believing our decisions were made on a purely rational basis even it was based on emotions in reality. It is sort of a built-in à posteriori justification mechanism. Our brain adds a rational explanation to an emotional decision it made. This is how our brain works – which is fine because it brought us here. We just should not fool ourselves. Almost always, it is the gut that decides, not the brain. ↩︎

  4. I will dive deeper into this topic in a future post↩︎

  5. Most people even stick to the status quo if it is worse than “okay”. Especially if the status quo is the result of a series of small deteriorations, it is surprising how bad the situation can become before they start to resist it. I will also dive deeper into this topic in a future post. ↩︎

  6. I call these kinds of markets “industrial markets”↩︎

  7. I call these kinds of markets “post-industrial markets”↩︎

  8. The mathematician would call that the derivative and the computer scientist would call it the meta-model. ↩︎