VUCA Requires Change, so How Do We Make Change Stick?

In my coaching, there is an inevitable conversation where the leader understands they must make a fundamental change. It could be that my 360 peer interviews uncovered a major flaw in their leadership, or we might discover they are underperforming in one of the VUCA skill areas we know they need to be strong in to lead their team or organization.  I have a saying with my clients that “what got you here likely won’t get you there.”  Leading in VUCA actually requires them to become someone different.  This can be both exciting and daunting because change is not easy.

Consider a study that followed patients who were told by their doctor that they needed to make a change in their life or they would likely die. These patients either needed to change their diets, exercise regimen, alcohol consumption, or they needed to take a medication to improve their health.  One year later, the study showed that only 1 in 7 had made the necessary change.  That’s only 13%!  What is going on here?

Conventional thinking is that when we don’t make a change it is likely because there’s a lack of incentive, or a lack of motivation, or a lack of the necessary skills. In the case of the patients, I can hardly imagine more incentive or motivation than life or death.  And I’m sure we’ve all had New Year’s Resolutions or changes we wanted to make at work that we were really committed to, but in the end we failed to make the change.

In their book Immunity to Change Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey study the phenomenon of change and take the reader through their Immunity Map process which lays out what it takes to make lasting change.  The map is a four-step process:

  1. Determine the improvement goal. What are you deeply committed to getting better at? It has to be something that ranks as a 4 or a 5 on a 1-5 scale of importance. It’s also helpful to check-in with your colleagues, family, and friends to ensure the improvement goal you have is the one they feel would be most helpful to them.
  2. List all of the behaviors that you are doing or not doing that work directly against your improvement goal. Important note here is that these must be observable actions, not thoughts or feelings. What are you actually doing/not doing that work against the goal?
  3. This is where their process departs from traditional change efforts. Conventional approach to change is to simply will ourselves to change behavior, and this is hardly ever successful. Why? Because we are more committed to something else than we are to our improvement goal. The first part of this third step is to imagine doing the opposite of the behaviors in step two. This should produce a list of fears or worries. List those first. For example, if I have an improvement goal to exercise more, and one of my behaviors in column two is that I come home from work and watch TV rather than going to the gym, in this third step I would imagine instead going to the gym. What worries/fears might this bring up? I worry that I will look silly to others at the gym, or I might be bored, or I might fail in my workouts. Whatever it is, be relentless in listing these worries. Next, based on the worries, make a list of what you are also committed to. Again, for my example, I would also be committed to not looking silly to others, or to not being bored.
  4. The final step is to examine the assumptions that sit behind our worries in the third step. Assumptions as generalizations we make about the world that we don’t even realize we make. These become the filters through which we see the world. Some of the assumptions from my example could be: I assume people will judge me if I look out of shape and struggle, I assume I will fail in my workouts, I assume the gym is a place where only attractive, in-shape people go, I assume it will be too hard to get in shape.

To make change stick, we have get clear on our deeper commitments to not changing, and the assumptions that sit behind them. Just choose one thing at a time and walk through the above process to make change happen.  Good luck!