Organizational Management of Change is a lot like quitting smoking.  Most of us know a current or former smoker, and how hard it is to quit. What can we learn to help us better manage organizational change?

Organizational Management of Change is like Quitting SmokingI recently saw an on-line conversation between a currently-quitting smoker and a former smoker. The latter was encouraging the former to continue.

Seem like an odd stage for Management of Change? Yeah, I thought so too. So, here’s what got my attention:

I found quitting smoking very hard until I really believed that I didn’t want to do that anymore. Then it was easy

(See the Twitter conversation here.)

Old Habits Die Hard

Why is it so hard to quit smoking? You know the facts…

Here’s the usual suspects:

  • It’s physically addictive
  • Social/cultural aspects
  • It’s a habit

Full disclosure – I’m neither a smoker nor a former smoker…. (Unless you count those few cigars in high school.)

Addictive: Nicotine is addictive. The body craves more of it. When deprived,  withdrawal symptoms set in, which are very real, and difficult to deal with. Its also pretty easy to remedy – just light up a smoke, and alls back to normal.

There’s a strong force at work in addiction to drive people back to what they’ve always done.

The same is true in Organizational Change – there’s a strong force that drives people back to doing what they’ve always done – to maintain the status quo. And it happens at a very instinctive level. In this way, it’s similar to a physical addition; the results the same.

Social: Smoking is so polarizing – you are either a smoker or you are not. If you are, then you are part of the smoking culture. The ash tray protocol, the smoke break, the got-a-light conversation starter. There’s camaraderie among smokers. Real connections made. Bonds and friendships formed and maintained over years.

When you try to quit smoking, you are choosing to leave a culture. And that’s hard. There are very real bonds there.

Similarly, Organizational Change is hampered when it disrupts the social order of things. People legitimately feel like something valuable is being threatened. There’s a lot of value in how-it-was, and defensive mechanisms spring to life.

For better or worse, ‘what was’ worked, and everyone knew their place and value in it. Organizational Change threatens to take that status away, and instinctively triggers a negative response.

And finally…

Habit: When we do things a certain way without even thinking about it – it’s a habit. And old habits really do die hard. Jason Selk debunked ’21 day to form new habits’ over at (Habit Formation: The 21 Day Myth) The truth is, it’s much harder to change habits than is commonly thought.

Jason describes three phases of forming new habits:

  1. The Honeymoon – this is going to be easy
  2. The Fighting Through – this is hard, but I’m toughing it out
  3. Second Nature – the new becomes second nature

I really like  how he describes “interruptions” that throw people back from Second Nature to Fighting Through again. Just when you think you’ve made it, bam!

It’s hard to move forward. It’s an uphill battle, and if you let up your resolve for even a moment, you lose ground.

You have to really want the change.

The Secret to Success: Really Wanting To Change!

There are many who know they should quit smoking. Lots of people like the idea of quitting.  And there are many organizations who know the need to change. They might even be convinced that bad things will happen if they don’t. But crossing the chasm from the idea to the reality is profoundly challenging.

The difference between liking the idea of change and actually changing is expressed in the simple wisdom of the quote above “… until I really believed that I didn’t want to do that anymore”.

Change happens first inside each of us. William Bridges believes that the actual change is much easier than the psychological transitions of people through changes. (Navigating the Transitions of Change.)

Organizational Management of ChangeWe all know Organizational Change is very difficult. There is a tremendous stasis in most organizations, and exerting a change force is greeted with an equal-and-opposing force to maintain status quo. For Change to work, people really have to want to change.

You Can’t Make People Change

But you can’t make people change. Just like family and friends who want dad to quit smoking; he won’t until he really wants to. He already knows it’s bad for him.

He gets it.

He doesn’t need more why. He needs to decide that he really wants to change.

Sometimes Change Leadership focuses too much on why change is needed. While its important to educate, actual change doesn’t come directly from the education. There comes a point where people get it already.

They’re not stupid, just not ready.


They have to get to that point on their own.

Hang on; Help is on The Way

Once a person has decided they really do want to change, it’s time to shift gears. Allow them time to mourn the loss; to say goodbye to what was. Time to help them envision possibilities in the new. Time to inspire and encourage. Help people believe in themselves and their ability to succeed in the new reality. Acknowledge their efforts and results as they Fight Through.

Accept there will be “interruptions” and setbacks.

It turns out there’s a lot we can learn about Organizational Management of Change from smoking.

It won ‘t be easy, but you can do it.

Care to share your struggles and success with Organizational Change?

Photo Credit: ERIO via Compfight cc