This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.
I live in a small town west of Boston. Halloween is a big deal here. It doesn’t matter which night of the week Halloween falls, that’s the night the kids are out trick or treating. Naturally, the kids prefer it when Halloween falls on a Friday or Saturday night so that they don’t have to worry about going to school the next day, but the idea of celebrating Halloween on the nearest Friday or Saturday night is anathema. Witches have more flight capability than the idea of moving Halloween. It just doesn’t happen.
My son, though, came up with a different approach: he asked me what would happen if there was a snow day on Halloween. Would that mean a full day of trick or treating?
“What are the odds of a snow day in October?” was my response.
I’ve always heard that it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. The converse is apparently not true. In 2011, we got a Halloween snowstorm. Not only did schools close on Halloween, they closed for the next two days as well. So much for the odds.
But Mother Nature’s little treat quickly revealed itself as a trick: due to downed trees and power lines, Halloween was postponed, and ended up being the evening of a school day after all. Halloween moved and no one objected: when Mother Nature makes a change, it can be best described as, well, a force of nature.
A year later, we had Hurricane Sandy. Some towns kept Halloween on schedule, some moved it. The force of the story is very strong: Halloween is supposed to be on October 31st. Even though there was still storm damage, the cultural habits produced different results in neighboring town. The kids, of course, made out like bandits: they got to go trick-or-treating twice!
This is the problem most organizations face when it comes to implementing effective and lasting organizational change. So long as enough force is applied, the change will happen. As soon as the force is removed, people revert to their old behaviors. They might not even wait for the force to stop. Sometimes a crisis can force permanent change, as happened at IBM when Lou Gerstner took over. A crisis can also force the sort of permanent change that happened at DEC: they were acquired by Compaq. Waiting for a crisis to force a change to occur is a very risky way to approach organizational change.
In chapter one, we discussed the process of unfreezing a culture in order to make change possible. What we are going to look at now is how change affects the narrative of the organization and how to frame the changes in the context of the existing narrative. Not only does change reactivate all the issues we’ve already discussed, it introduces a whole new set of cocnerns that need to be addressed if you want people to become active agents of change instead of opponents of it. While these new questions can manifest in a variety of ways, the seven canonical versions are: