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The New Science of Change

The New Science of Change

Nothing is more frustrating than trying to get people to alter the way they do things. New research reveals why it's so hard and suggests strategies to make it easier

Kevin Sparks has been trying to get his staff to change the way it monitors and supports the data centre for the past year. But he hasn't been getting anywhere.

Not that he's getting resistance. At least not overtly. His staffers at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Kansas City agree that installing automated monitoring software, along with a centralized control room and a set of standard processes for responding to problems, would be more efficient than the way they deal with things now - mostly through ad hoc heroism.

"Logic always prevails and everyone will agree - at the intellectual level - that we need to change things," says Sparks, who is vice president and CIO. But then he finds himself surrounded by empty chairs at meetings while the people who should be sitting there are off fighting the latest fire.

"I tell them I need them at the meetings and if we changed things they'd have the time to be there. But things always break down when we talk about taking monitoring out of their hands [through automation]," Sparks says.

To help his staff accept the new processes, Sparks says he's taken retrenchments off the table, even though the proposed automation and process efficiencies could reduce the need for bodies. The change is part of a larger effort to implement the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) process framework to improve overall productivity (for more on ITIL, see "ITIL Power", CIO October 2005) "I don't want fewer people; I want the ones I have to do more things," he says, sighing with frustration.

In other words, Sparks's staff doesn't seem to have any logical reason for resisting the changes. But before you dismiss them as a bunch of inflexible, fearful losers, know this:

They are you and you are they.

A Universal Truth

Maybe your resistance to change manifests itself in a different way or in a different setting - a refusal to throw away that old slide rule, for example, or to look while the nurse draws your blood, or to dance at weddings. We all refuse to change our ways for reasons that are often hard to articulate.

Until, that is, you begin looking at it from a scientific perspective. In the past few years, improvements in brain analysis technology have allowed researchers to track the energy of a thought coursing through the brain in much the same way that they can track blood flowing through the circulatory system. Watching different areas of the brain light up in response to specific thoughts has brought a new understanding to the corporeal mechanics of psychology in general and to our response to change in particular.

These advances are bringing a much-needed hard foundation of science to a leadership challenge that to CIOs has long seemed hopelessly soft and poorly defined: change management. Pictures don't (usually) lie, and the pictures of the brain show that our responses to change are predictable and universal. From a neurological perspective, we all respond to change in the same way: We try to avoid it. But understanding the brain's chemistry and mechanics has led to insights that can help CIOs ameliorate the pain of change and improve people's abilities to adapt to new ways of doing things.

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