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This chapter is from the book


Precisely because the organizational and business realities we face are complex, people can ignore or literally be blind to the "obvious" differences between the past and present. This is why they fail to see the reasons that strategies, structures, cultural values, processes, technologies, etc. must change. The fact that most people do not easily see these contrasts is clear and compelling evidence that people cannot be left on their own to visualize them. Just as we "forced" you to see the contrasts among the circles on the previous page, leaders have to confront their people with the key contrasts between the past, present, and future.

Combining Contrast and Confrontation

The matrix in Exhibit 3-2 helps to illustrate why both contrast and confrontation are necessary to overcome the first gravitational force—the failure to see.


Exhibit 3-2 Breaking through the sight barrier.

If there is low contrast (for example, the nearly white circle on the white page) and low confrontation (for example, if you could just skip the previous page on which we presented the contrasting circles), your change efforts are likely to end up in the garbage can—wasting time, money, and energy. With low contrast and confrontation, people will not see a need for change and, consequently, won't change.

If contrast is high, however, and confrontation is low, it is like a passing parade. People will "ooh" and "ah" at the difference, but when the parade passes, they will go back to what they were doing before.

If confrontation is high but contrast is low, it is like an old shoe. It sits there confronting you every day, but it is still the same old shoe. It looks and smells no different each day.

The key to overcoming the failure to see is creating both high contrast and high confrontation. Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done. Even when leaders attempt to create both high contrast and confrontation, we frequently observe two common mistakes.

Mistake #1: The Comprehensiveness Mistake

In creating high contrast, one of the first mistakes many leaders make is what we call the comprehensiveness mistake. The mistake happens as leaders try to illustrate the contrasts between yesterday and tomorrow but end up making the illustration too complex and comprehensive. When presented with a complex picture of the past and present (or future), the complexity actually allows employees to focus on what they want. Because people are programmed to hang on to what has worked, they are likely to use that freedom to focus on similarities in the picture, rather than differences. Why? Similarities reinforce past mental maps, whereas differences may threaten them. Presenting too complex a picture also allows people to zero in on the "not so important" contrasts, rather than the critical one. Either way, people are free to conclude, "Things are not really that different." And if things are not really that different, then little need exists for them to think or behave differently. The important thing to keep in mind is that the more complex the picture presented is, the more alternative specific points there will be on which people can choose to focus. This, in turn, increases the chances that they will select the wrong targets for guiding their actions.

What causes leaders to make this common mistake? In some cases, the cause of this comprehensiveness mistake is that leaders know that reality is complex, and they do not want to appear to be simple-minded. Consequently, they list and discuss "a variety of factors contributing to our need to change." At one level, this is quite understandable and sensible. Yet in our experience, the true cause of this mistake is less admirable. In most cases, the mistake has less to do with a desire to "reflect the complex reality of the current business environment" and more to do with leaders' inability or unwillingness to identify the core of the issue. Rather than take the time and energy to identify the core 20% that accounts for 80% of the problems, they fall for an easier approach of simply listing all the factors. The time and brainpower required to create a long list of factors is not nearly that required to determine which factors on that long list are the most influential. This is why calling this the comprehensiveness mistake is too polite; we probably ought to call it the laundry list mistake.

Mistake #2: The "I Get It" Mistake

Even if we as leaders are successful at avoiding the first mistake (the comprehensiveness mistake), there is a second pitfall we all too often see people fall into—the "I get it" mistake. The mistake is simple. It is presenting the contrast once and only once. In other words, as the leader, you recognize the need for change, so you present it to others one time and expect them to understand it instantly. After all, you understand it, so why shouldn't they?

When we say "you," we mean everybody. No one seems to be totally immune from making this mistake. So why do we make this mistake? The answer lies in giving ourselves too much credit. After we spend time trying to understand a problem and the light bulb in our head finally turns on, we give ourselves too much credit and forget how much time and effort it took to "get it." This happens in part because once we get it, we get it. The neural pathways in our brain among the various components of the problem and solution are established. They are there. Once we understand it, we do not have to do anything to understand it again. The neural pathways are paved, and we can make the connections at high speeds. It is there; we see it instantaneously. In fact, we often think, "This was so obvious. Why didn't I see it from the start?" It is as though once the light goes on, it turns off our memory of how we got there and how much time and effort it took.

Consequently, we think that if we mention it once to someone, they will get it, too. The new strategic vision is so obvious, how many times should we need to repeat it? During consulting engagements, we have heard leaders on many occasions ask us something similar to the following: "Didn't they hear me? I explained all this in my presentation the other day. Are they brain dead?" Although this may seem harsh, we can't even print the harsher statements. But the key point is that all of us give ourselves too much credit and forget how many times we had to look at a problem, how many different angles we had to explore, and how long we had to think about it before we finally understood it. Because we forget the process of understanding it, we end up thinking that saying it once to others is more than enough for them.

Creating High Contrast

With these two common mistakes in mind, we can now turn our attention to specific means of creating high and compelling contrast—the first of our two-part solution. Given the tendency to try to paint pictures that are too complicated and comprehensive, effective contrast requires leaders to focus on the core 20%. As we have already pointed out, reality in its entirety is complex. Left completely in its complexity, the important contrasts are hard to see. Consequently, leaders have to simplify and focus on the key differences. The key is identifying the key differences. Making the judgments as to what are and what are not core contrasts is what leaders get paid for.

Imagine for a moment that you work for the leading signal processing firm, QuadQ, Inc., [1] whose products primarily ship to the health care industry. Scientific researchers and hospital researchers use your products in diagnostic tests and cellular and blood chemical analysis. QuadQ's analog technology has been at the leading edge for years. Then a shift occurs in the market. First, digital signal processing emerges as a competing technological platform. When it first emerges, however, it seems unable to rival your analog technology. Second, the nature of customers begins to shift. Diagnostics and analyses are done increasingly in clinics and by technicians, not in research labs by MDs and PhDs. Third, there is a trend to coordinate separate tests and analyses into integrated systems. The emerging "buzz phrase" in your industry becomes "providing solutions, not boxes, to customers."

As signs of these shifts first emerge, many of the scientists within your firm resist the signals that the environment is changing. They work harder at coming up with customized analog solutions for customers. Over a year or two, it becomes increasingly clear to you that digital signal processing is the superior technology in general and specifically for integrating your products into larger solutions. It also becomes more evident to you that digital is the way to go for simplifying the use of your product so that less sophisticated customers can operate the equipment.

How do you create a compelling contrast sufficient to shake your employees free from their entrenched mental maps? First, you have to cut to the core. What are the core contrasts between the past and the future? Clearly, QuadQ exists in a very complex environment, but allowing too much of that complexity to creep in can kill the needed contrast.

Although QuadQ's environment is full of complexity, five key contrasts exist: technology, strategy, customers, competencies, and relationships (Exhibit 3-3). Keep in mind that, as simple as this seems, it still requires people to remember 10 things (i.e., five categories by two descriptions). This is important when you recall, as we previously mentioned, that although most people can remember seven things, only about 2% remember ten. You create the following matrix to highlight the core contrast.

Table 3-3. QuadQ's Changing Environment








Make leading-edge boxes

Provide leading-edge solutions


Hospital and research centers. Sophisticated doctors and scientists

Clinics and labs. Significantly less sophisticated technicians

Key Personal Competencies

Scientific and technical brilliance


Departmental Relations

Autonomous and independent

Collaborative and cooperative

The second thing you do is ratchet up contrast by enhancing the conceptual distance between the descriptions. You know that the reality may not be quite so black and white, but you also know that the greater the contrast, the easier it is for employees to see difference and recognize the acute need for change.

In addition to focusing on the core contrasts, you also take a page from what we know in general about vision and memory. Research has clearly demonstrated that the better you create images in people's minds, the more clearly they can recall associated messages. Although the above matrix appeals to your cerebral nature, you realize the need for something else—something more visual. In response, you create a very simple picture that contrasts the old and the new, as shown in Exhibit 3-4.


Exhibit 3-4 QuadQ's strategic contrast maps.

Using these images, you explain that in the past, individual, brilliant scientists created leading-edge analog boxes that very sophisticated customers used. That was the old map. The new map calls for gearing products toward increasingly less sophisticated customers and away from doctors and research scientists. With the new map, QuadQ will create more integrated, digital solutions, rather than boxes. Finally, instead of relying on individual brilliance among QuadQ scientists, the future will require cross-functional teams composed of technology, marketing, and manufacturing people to design and produce the new solutions.

To summarize, you have three steps for creating high contrast:

  1. Focus on the core 20% of what is different.
  2. Enhance (even slightly exaggerate) the simple descriptions between the old and new.
  3. Create visual images, or pictures, of the old and new so that the contrast is understood as more than mere words.

Creating Confrontation

Clearly, pointing out contrasts between the old and new is a critical first step to change. However, to avoid the "I get it" mistake, pointing these contrasts out just once is not enough. Twice is not enough. To ensure a high level of confrontation, you will likely have to present the contrasts repeatedly so employees don't view them as "one-time passing parades" that they can simply wait out. For example, remember the Australian map of the world from Chapter 2? Let's look at it one more time.

When viewing the map this time (if you're not Australian), did a small voice inside your head still say, "That's upside down"? If so, consider yourself quite normal. Now imagine how much exposure to this map it would take to get rid of that voice in your head—to completely eliminate it. That's why repetition becomes so important when trying to change mental maps. But just how many repetitions are enough as you try to initiate change at work? Unfortunately, we know of no scientific studies that answer this question. From our observations and conversations with seasoned executives, though, employees need to hear the contrast message clearly at least five or six times to ensure that they get it.

Repetition is a powerful, but certainly not the only, means of ensuring high confrontation. An additional means is employing what we call inescapable experiences. An inescapable experience has two dimensions. The first is (get ready for this) that it is inescapable. By this we mean that it is hard for the individual to mentally sidestep or ignore the experience or to physically walk away from the experience. Second, the experience must be (again get ready for this revelation) experiential. This may sound redundant, but the experience cannot be just mental. It needs to actively involve as many of the senses as possible: touch, smell, sight, sound, taste. We know from a wide body of scientific literature that the more senses involved and the deeper their involvement, the higher will be the impact of an experience—more is learned, and more is retained.

Let's return to QuadQ, Inc. As the CEO, you did a good job of creating contrast, but you must also ensure effective confrontation.The message must be repeated—probably more often than you think necessary. In addition, you must create some inescapable experiences. How can you do this? You might borrow a page from the CEO of Samsung Electronics.

Samsung is a giant conglomerate in Korea, and Samsung Electronics is one of its key companies. Samsung Electronics is, by most accounts, the leading consumer electronics company in Korea. It has the largest market share and a premiere quality image. It was used to operating in a certain way. Yet its operations and sales in the United States were not going well at all. The CEO was convinced that Samsung had to operate differently in that market than at home, but the message was just not getting through to his top managers in Korea. So the CEO created an inescapable experience. He put nearly 100 of the most senior executives on a plane, and off they went to visit stores in the United States.

The contrasts were stark. Rather than being sold in small shops as in Korea, electronics were sold in large stores in the United States. Rather than getting prime merchandising space as they did in Korea, Samsung products were in the bargain bin, back behind leaders such as Sony, and even behind second-tier makers, such as GE. Samsung executives saw where their products were displayed, rubbed their fingers across the dust on the products, heard customers talk excitedly about competitors' product features as they shopped, and tasted the envy in their mouths for the position of market leaders such as Sony. Samsung was king at home but not in the royal court in the United States.

Samsung executives could not escape the experience. It was repeated essentially a dozen times as the group went from store to store. They could not sidestep the experience because they were physically put in the center of it. As a consequence, the contrast finally had a deep impact.

As the CEO of QuadQ, you should do something similar. You must create an inescapable experience. Simply talking about the contrasts, even repeatedly, is not enough. What can you do? Let's take a look at the Samsung example for insights.

First, the primary objective of an inescapable experience is putting people directly in front of the most important and forceful aspects of the contrast. As a consequence, you must decide what you want the experience to focus on. Just as there is the danger of diluting the impact of contrast by allowing too much complexity, so too can you dilute the impact of the confronting experience by making it too complex and unfocused. In the case of Samsung, what was a core contrast that hit the executives right between the eyes? It was the treatment of the product. To exaggerate, in Korea, Samsung's products are held respectfully in gloved hands when presented to consumers. In the United States, they're casually tossed into bargain bins with a sign above reading "Clearance Sale!"

What is the key contrast that can hit QuadQ employees, especially the scientists, right between the eyes? Customers. QuadQ scientists are used to interacting with other PhD scientists wearing lab coats. QuadQ scientists are used to creating sophisticated solutions for other lab coat-type customers. What would happen, though, if you confronted your PhD scientists with a new technician-type customer holding only an associate's degree, sporting purple hair, and wearing a nose ring? Then what would happen if you sat that less formally educated customer down to run diagnostics on your old analog products, and your PhD research scientists were forced to listen to the customer's severe complaints about the products? The contrast—if done with enough new-generation customers over a long enough period of time—would be compelling and inescapable. The resulting shock is precisely what your people need for you to have a prayer of overcoming the strength of their old analog map that has dominated the strategic path of success in your firm for the last 40 years.

To summarize, two steps create high-impact confrontation.

  1. Repeat the messages of the old and new maps over and over and over again.
  2. Create high-impact, inescapable confrontations.
    1. Focus the experience on what you think are the core contrasts. Do not dilute it with too much complexity.
    2. Make sure that the experience involves as many of the senses as possible. There are few effective substitutes for live, fully engaged action.
    3. Physically ensure that people cannot easily avoid the experience but must take the brunt of it right between the eyes.
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