Here's a well-known phrase about change that many of you have probably heard:

"Change is the only constant."

It's a nice way of telling all of us to stop trying to fight change because it's going to happen regardless of what we do. An employee of mine years ago used to selectively wear a t-shirt he had made just for me for casual Fridays that read:

"Change Happens"

I liked the not so subtle substitution of the word "change" for the more common expletive that usually is used in that phrase. You can interpret that however you'd like.

There are lineages of change management strategies, practical tips for navigating it well, guidance from the trenches, and lessons learned from totally screwing it up. As someone who has managed organizational transformation for a living, I've contributed to the conversation as well with things I've learned and psychological research that I apply every time I'm working on a large scale transformation and change effort.

Given how hard large scale change is, it does make you think, though, about whether there is another way.

The problem with "big change"

Here's the thing most of us find ourselves confronted with when it comes to change:

The thing we are introducing that is different is significant. Whether it be a new system, strategy, operating model, or new ways of working, we introduce big change and then we try to grab the horns of the beast and manage it.

Then we do it all again at some point in the not too distant future for the next big change.

This often causes change fatigue not only for leaders trying to make change happen but also for employees trying to deal with the changes. There's only so much big change people can take, and if it is perceived as relentless, it just gets exhausting. When exhaustion hits, you often don't get the most out of the big change you are trying to make.

The 2% rule of change: A different way of leading change

Sometimes, big change is inevitable and the only way.

For many other cases, though, what if you strategically introduced very small change continuously? In other words, you make change in tiny increments that aren't big enough to get people totally freaked out. In some cases, the tiny changes might not even be that noticeable. Over time, though, enough tiny changes combine to become a decent amount of change.

That's the essence of the 2% rule of change:

Implement change that is essentially below the radar for people to get too worked up about it but still is moving towards where you want to go.

A major difference between this approach to change and large scale change is that it is not "event-based." As many of us have experienced, the concept of the event itself causes emotional pain and suffering that can get us off course right from the start.

The obvious argument against the 2% rule is speed and pace. Business moves fast, and to many, this will seem too slow. But it might just be faster than you think when you consider the research and science around influencing people to do things differently.

Rooted in the science of persuasion

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about the science behind persuasion based on the research of Dr. Robert Cialdini, a leading social psychologist in the field.

One of the key research findings was that you generally want to honor your commitments, and it turns out that it is easier for you to make big commitments after you have made a series of much smaller commitments on the same topic.

The research team conducted a great experiment where they asked home owners to put a large and invasive sign on their property as part of a "drive safely" campaign. As you might expect, many said "no."

But in a similar neighborhood a week earlier, home owners were asked to put a very small "drive safely" post card in their window. The result was that four times as many home owners in that neighborhood said they would be willing to put up the big sign when asked the following week.

A big practical lesson from this is to start small and build commitment first. The concept behind the 2% rule of change, while not exactly the same thing, is very similar and easily applicable.

So the next time you are thinking about a major change for the company, think about it first in its smallest pieces and parts. Instead of the big bang of change, you might actually be able to make more progress with the baby steps method.

Published on: Jun 14, 2017
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