Effective Change Management: 3 Ways to Make It Stick

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Switch" by Chip and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why is change so hard? How can you make change stick and keep moving forward?

Getting people to change is only half the battle. You also need to make sure that change lasts. Effective change management relies on reinforcing behavior, giving change time, and recognizing the pattern that change follows.

Learn about the three keys to effective change management.

3 Keys to Effective Change Management

Effective change management requires that you also ensure that the change progresses and sticks by reinforcing good behavior, giving the change time to settle in, and reminding yourself that change follows a pattern. 

1) Reinforce Good Behavior

Have your goal clearly in mind and reinforce any behavior that represents a step toward this goal, no matter how small. This is important—many people become discouraged when change doesn’t happen quickly. Change doesn’t happen all at once. Effective change management is a long process of repeatedly performing change-supporting behaviors. Recognizing and celebrating good behaviors not only encourages more frequent good behaviors, but also good behaviors that are increasingly close to your goal. 

  • Imagine you’re trying to get your partner to be less messy. He’s probably not going to turn into Mr. Clean overnight. Instead, pay attention to small behavioral changes in the right direction, and praise them. This might look like: Kicking off his shoes next to the door, instead of in the middle of the living room or containing his pile of dirty clothes in a corner of your room, even if they don’t quite make it into the laundry basket. Over time, seeking praise, he more frequently goes out of his way to clean up. Eventually, staying tidy is an established habit for him. 

Practice Reinforcement in Your Organization

Many managers use “personality type” tests in an attempt to understand, and better manage, their employees. This approach usually isn’t conducive to change, because it makes you more likely to attribute anti-change behaviors to character and not circumstance. This “they’re just not wired to make those changes” quickly kills change potential. 

Shift your focus from character to behavior. For effective change management, regularly praise employees for any sign of progress toward your goal, and expect them to do the same for you and their colleagues. This might look like going out of your way to thank a colleague for getting their report in on time, even if the formatting wasn’t quite right.

Reinforcement is especially hard in work settings because you naturally notice shortcomings more than progress, and it’s more fun to get together with colleagues to complain about, rather than praise, others. Stay focused on your goal, and make a conscious effort to praise as much as possible. 

(Shortform note: Read our summary of Radical Candor to learn how to give and receive sincere and helpful praise.) 

Practice Reinforcement as a Parent

Work up to the behavior you want from your children by looking for vague approximations of the behavior—moments where your children are being polite, doing the right thing, or being helpful. Keep your goal in mind, and regularly ask yourself: Is this behavior in any way aligned with the goal? If it is, recognize and celebrate it.

Goal: Put a stop to the endless burp and gas jokes. 

* Reinforcement might look like: I appreciate that you said “excuse me” after burping. That was very polite. 

Goal: Get your daughter to share toys with her younger sister without tantrums. 

* Reinforcement might look like: It was nice of you to let Katie sit next to you and watch you play with your doll. 

Goal: Have your toddler learn how to clean up after himself. 

* Reinforcement might look like: It was so helpful of you to clear your dishes! Next time let’s try putting them in the sink instead of in the trash.

2) Give the Change Time to Settle In

The beginning stages of change are the hardest because adjustment to new behaviors and environments is uncomfortable. For effective change management, be patient and don’t give up—once the initial discomfort of change wears off, you’ll find that your new behavior feels natural and your changes build off one another. There are two reasons for this:

  • The more you’re exposed to something, the more you like it—this is called the “mere exposure effect.” For example, you may initially hate vegetables, but over time you come to appreciate their interesting flavors and textures. Or you might dislike waking up early in the morning, but after you get into the rhythm of it, you realize how nice it is to have some quiet alone time before the day begins. 
  • When you repeat behaviors enough, you eventually attach your identity to those behaviors. This makes them easier to continue because you’re acting in line with who you believe you are. For example, if you start running every day, you’ll start to think of yourself as a runner—which further motivates you to stick with and even progress in running. 

3) Remember That Change Is a Pattern

Change that works always follows the same pattern—you synced up your rational side and your emotional side and created a low-resistance path. Successful change always follows this pattern, in all contexts.  

For effective change management, this is important to keep in mind because it’s likely you’ve already made successful changes in your life—such as picking up a new habit, becoming a parent, or changing your area of study. This means that you’ve already used the pattern and already know that you can do it. Keep this reassurance at the forefront of your mind to push you through hard moments during a process of change, or to reassure you if you feel unsure taking on a new goal.

This knowledge should inform how you set yourself up for all changes from now on. When you’re considering any sort of change, be sure that it covers all parts of the pattern. 

  1. Ask yourself: Is there a success story that I can examine to find a practical solution? What is the clear destination that I’m hoping to arrive at? What guidelines can I put in place to safeguard myself against rationalizing anti-change behaviors? 
  2. Ask yourself: What emotions are most effective in this context, and how can I create an emotional experience? What small wins can I build into this goal? 
  3. Ask yourself: How can I change my environment to better support my goals? What are triggering situations for me, and how would I like to respond? Can I leverage the influence of others to make this happen?

For effective change management, follow these three guidelines to keep the change moving forward.

Effective Change Management: 3 Ways to Make It Stick

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  • Why some changes succeed while others fail
  • Actionable advice for creating changes that not only succeed but stick
  • The three essential elements for successful change

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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