Change Management and the Law of Diminishing Returns

by  Jennifer V. Miller  |  Change Management

People HATE change.
They loathe and despise it. They see it, abhor it and team up to fight it.
Mind you, not all people, all the time. But certainly most people, much of the time

These are the opening lines of the post, Convincing the Resistant by fellow Lead Change contributor Tristan Bishop. “Most people, much of the time” certainly reflects the uphill battle that leaders face when implementing change.

But exactly how many people, and how often? If you’re to believe a recent NPR story, it would appear that for a small percentage of folks, the need to change never occurs. In a highly entertaining Morning Edition story Tools Never Die. Whaddaya Mean, Never?, Cool Tools blog editor Kevin Kelly (and author of the book What Technology Wants) boldly says, “I say there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” NPR’s science correspondent Robert Krulwich then spends the remainder of the story trying to prove Kelly wrong. The thing is, he can’t. A sample of things still being made:

  • Paleolithic hammers
  • 6 pages of agricultural tools from an 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue
  • Carbon paper

Krulwich is still on a mission to prove Kelly wrong via his blog. Regardless of whether he finds a truly extinct tool or not, it’s clear that when it comes to change, there will always be hold outs. The fact that people hold on to cherished, albeit, outdated, forms of technology points to an element of the human condition that leaders must acknowledge:

When implementing change, there are diminishing returns for convincing the resistant.

It’s the economic principle of the Law of Diminishing Returns boiled down to its simplest terms: “the gain is not worth the pain.”1 A leader committed to a change aims for 100% change adoption. And a wise leader will have a back up plan in place in the event there are a few resisters. There comes a point in every change initiative when a leader must consider the extra effort needed to get those last few hold outs on board.

I’m intrigued by the notion of how a leader determines when “enough is enough” in change management efforts. Will you engage with me in conversation around this idea?

What does your experience tell you about the law of diminishing returns in change management—what percentage of adopters do you need before the change will take hold?

And, how does a leader deal with the resisters— in a character-based way?

1 Source: businessdictionary.com


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About The Author

Articles By jennifer-miller
Jennifer V. Miller is a leadership development consultant whose writing and digital training materials help business professionals better lead themselves and others towards greater career success.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  23 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Wonderful observation and post. I think one factor to consider relative to the Tipping Point is the number of people required to achieve win-win. In other words, how many people are required to make the idea profitable for the provider AND the consumer? If a new idea never reaches that point it may become extinct. Buy once it does, it may last a very long time.

Thanks for the great post. Mike…

Jennifer V. Miller  |  23 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Thanks for bringing the various constituencies into the conversation. It’s true that a leader may have a “great” but if the marketplace doesn’t agree, then the idea dies on the vine.

Sonia Di Maulo  |  23 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Jennifer, very insightful and excellently written post!

I especially liked:
1. Quote from Tristan’s post!
2. Link to NRP story: Tools Never Die. Whaddaya Mean, Never? by editor Kevin Kelly and how NPR’s science correspondent Robert Krulwich tries to prove him wrong… great examples!
3. Wonderful thought-provoking questions!

And here are some thoughts…
Question 1: What does your experience tell you about the law of diminishing returns in change management—what percentage of adopters do you need before the change will take hold?
– I help my clients with their change initiatives, and our design considers the majority of adopters, of course! Realistically, we know that that a certain percentage will not adopt, and a certain other percentage will adopt without believing. That is why, together, we look at all the factors that affect performance and change: Feedback/Communication (People), Tools/Processes, Incentives/Rewards, Knowledge/Skills, Capacity, & Motivation!

This strategy allows us to create a plan for 100% adoption, and Plans B and C for non-adopters. The key is follow-up with the non-adopters to identify the resistance to change… my experience tells me that the more adopters you have, who really wholehearted believe in the change (and if it’s done properly, this will happen), the less resisters you have (at least less verbal ones)! How many is enough? Wish I knew the answer to that! I think every change initiative is different, because each organization is different, along with their culture.

Question 2: And, how does a leader deal with the resisters— in a character-based way?
– With Respect, always. Often our instinct is to “ignore” the resisters… this benefits no one. I recommend hearing them out, having the difficult conversations, cultivating trust and collaboration, and making these resisters part of the solutions… they may make the solution that much more solid and robust… and if nothing else, they will feel heard! Critical.

Thanks for soliciting my thoughts… it was great to share!


Jennifer V. Miller  |  23 Feb 2011  |  Reply

The six-factor model you mention above—is that from Tom Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model? I’ve used that model for years—it’s a good one!

Sonia Di Maulo  |  23 Feb 2011  |  Reply

Yes!!! Six-boxes Performance Thinking Model from Carl Binder is an adapted version of Gilbert’s Behavioral Engineering Model (made more client friendly). I use it and teach others how to use it. It’s a real eye-opener.

I am part of Carl Binder’s Linkedin Group: Six Boxes® Performance Thinking Network. Excellent on-going resource!

Glad to know we have even more in common. :)


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