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The Crux of the Challenge

This brings us to the crux of the challenge. Clearly change has always been and still remains difficult. Unless we can dig beneath the surface and get to the fundamentals of why this is so, we have no hope or prayer of meeting the ever-escalating demands of leading successful change.

As I briefly mentioned earlier, we all have mental maps, and the more these maps have worked in the past, the more deeply entrenched they are in our brains. By the way, this is nearly a literal expression. That is, as impulses travel over the same neural pathways, they etch the path ever deeper in our brains. Efforts to redraw and change mental maps and walk in new paths are almost always met with resistance—often instinctual or reflex resistance. In the end, the human brain poses a significant set of barriers that we must break through if we are to meet the increasing demands of leading change in ourselves and in others.

This is why unlocking individual change starts and ends with the mental maps people carry in their heads—how they see the organization and their world at work. Just as actual maps guide the steps people take on a hike through the Himalayas, mental maps direct people’s behavior through the daily ups and downs of organizational life. And if leaders cannot change their own and others’ mental maps, they will not change the destinations people pursue or the paths they take to get there. If what is in people’s heads is not remapped, then their hearts and hands have nothing new to follow.

To better understand these fundamentals of breaking through the brain barrier, we might take a page from those who broke through the sound barrier. The sound barrier was first broken in level flight on October 14, 1947, by then Captain (and later General) Chuck Yeager. Before this, several pilots died because scientists and pilots simply did not fully understand the nature of the sound barrier or, more precisely, they did not fully understand the changes in aerodynamics that occurred at transonic and supersonic speeds. Simplified, what happens is that as the plane moves faster through the air, the increased speed causes a shockwave to form on the wing and tail and change the aerodynamics of the plane. As the speed of the plane increases to nearly the speed of sound, this shockwave moves back along the wing and tail and changes the pressure distribution, and thus the plane’s aerodynamic properties. Given these dynamics, breaking through the sound barrier required three specific adjustments.

First, enough thrust had to be generated to move a plane at level flight faster than the speed of sound (about 761 miles per hour at sea level). This required a change from propeller to jet propulsion.

Second, to adjust for the change in aerodynamics on the wings at supersonic speed, the wings had to be swept back and made thinner.

Third, to create the additional air pressure needed to cause appropriate pitch (movement of the plane’s nose up or down), the horizontal stabilizers needed significant modification. The horizontal stabilizers are simply the small wings on either side of the plane’s tail. Along the back edge of each is a section (called the elevator) that swivels up or down. At subsonic flight, the movement of this small section is sufficient to cause the plane to climb or dive. This same small surface was not sufficient at transonic and supersonic speeds to generate the same effect. Today, on most supersonic planes, rather than just a small section of the trailing edge moving, the entire horizontal stabilizer pivots to create the needed air pressure change to alter the pitch during supersonic flight.

However, even with these modifications and an enhanced understanding, as flights would approach the speed of sound, the plane would shake as the shock waves buffeted it. It seemed that the harder technicians and pilots pushed the planes toward the sound barrier, the more resistance they encountered. Some even thought that in pushing through the sound barrier, the shock waves would crush the plane like an aluminum can. On that eventful day in October 1947, Yeager reported that his plane was shaking violently as he approached Mach 1 (the speed of sound). However, once he “punched through it,” the flight was as smooth as glass.

Take a moment to look at Figure 1.3. This incredible photo captures an F-18 fighter jet hitting Mach 1, the speed of sound. Obviously, sound waves are invisible to the unaided human eye, and the only reason that we can see the plane breaking through the sound barrier is because the shock waves compress the moisture in the air to form this temporary cloud.

Figure 1.3

Figure 1.3 F-18 breaking through the sound barrier.

“Interesting, but what does this have to do with leading change?” you might ask. As I interviewed and observed managers, I consistently found that there seemed to be a natural barrier to change—a brain barrier. Like the sound barrier, the faster a leader tried to push change, the more shock waves of resistance compacted together, forming a massive barrier to change. Instead of a sound barrier, though, leaders confront a “brain barrier” composed of preexisting and successful mental maps. These incredibly powerful maps determine how people see the world of work, guiding their daily steps and behaviors.

The power of these mental maps surprised one of my colleagues several years ago. He was hired as a consultant to help transform a meatpacking factory from an authoritarian top-down management system to a high-involvement participative one. After three days of intensive training focused on the opportunities, challenges, and everyday logistics associated with greater empowerment and self-managed work teams, a burly 300-pound butcher stood up in the back of the room, slammed a meat cleaver into the table, and demanded in no uncertain terms that he still had “a right to have a manager tell me what to do and when to do it.” Clearly, this butcher’s maps of his world at work had not budged an inch. And for significant organizational change to take hold of peoples’ hearts and hands in this meatpacking plant—or anywhere else for that matter—leaders of change must comprehend, break through, and ultimately redraw individual mental maps, one by one, person by person, again and again.

This brings us to the critical barriers that can block sustainable strategic change. In my work, I have identified not one but three successive barriers to change. The low success rate and conversely high failure rate of change is due in part to the fact that we must break through three strong barriers for ultimate success. I refer to these three barriers as the See, Move, and Finish barriers:

  • See—Even when opportunities or threats stare people in the face, often they fail to see the need to change.
  • Move—Even when they see the need, they frequently still fail to move.
  • Finish—Even when they see the need and start to move, they often fail to finish (that is, not going far or fast enough for the change to ultimately succeed).

Like with the sound barrier, if we can understand the nature of each of these three barriers, we can make the needed adjustments to achieve breakthrough change. As a consequence, in this book I build on past research, as well as interviews and work I have done with literally thousands of managers around the world, to grasp why people fail to see, move, and finish. In addition, I describe the keys to success—the modifications needed to break through each barrier. Although I don’t claim to have all the insights or answers, my journey over the past 25 years has illuminated what I believe you will find to be simple yet powerful and practical concepts and tools. Quite simply, this book reveals the forces behind each barrier to change and describes specific tools and techniques for breaking through.

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