Have you ever wondered how complicated decisions are made—say, for example, what size to make the solid rocket boosters (SRBs) that take our shuttle into space? It’s an interesting story with an obvious lesson in change management (or lack of it). 

The Space Shuttle’s SRBs are built to be as large as possible and still fit in the train tunnels through which they must pass, since rocket engines this large are transported by train. The train tunnels were built to be just barely larger than four feet, 8.5 inches, which is the standard distance between the rails of a train track. This distance is identical to the ones used in England, since it was British expatriates who laid America’s first rail tracks.

Why did the English use this measurement? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used. The people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools used in the past to build wagons with that same wheel spacing. And the wagons used that particular wheel spacing because any other spacing would result in the wagon wheels breaking on some of the old, long distance roads in England where the wheel ruts were long ago already grooved that far apart.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. It was the ancient Romans who built the first long-distance roads in England that over time created these wheel ruts, which in turn set the cascading standards leading to today’s train tunnels. The Romans used a distance of four feet, 8.5 inches because that was the space needed for two warhorse behinds to fit between the wheels of their chariots.

And so, thousands of years later, as we marvel at humanity’s most advanced form of transportation—the space shuttle—we are looking at a design based on the width of the ancient Romans’ horses’ behinds.

Do you find yourself facing constraints in your company that seem to have a similar basis in some long-past convention that has outlived its meaningfulness, in effect constraints that are being passionately defended and perpetuated by talented and ambitious people? Why might that be? In truth, it’s all about getting people to understand and accept the need to leave behind the tried and true…to move forward to new, untested ground for the good of the organization.

The best way to achieve change comes not from a boardroom of executives following a structured process, but with inspired leadership. Contrary to the tendency to focus on the mechanics and processes, inspired leadership instead looks to the motivations of individuals. Behavior change is rarely the product of logical argument. Rather, the key lies with three critical leadership practices:

•    Ensure that everyone understands the underlying problems
•    Create a sense of urgency to solve them
•    Generate emotions that inspire action

Using this approach, a ground swelling of support can be achieved, increasing the probability of a successful change. As Keith Morrow, 7-Eleven CIO at the time, said, “You’ve got to get people involved, excited, and energized to where the change is something they’re a part of, something they make happen as opposed to something that happens to them.”  

Oversimplification, a perceived need for immediacy, or a lack of understanding of the change process often results in management ignoring the critically important human element while instead focusing solely on cost, quality and time. The reality is that people are deeply influenced by their perceptions and beliefs; the emotional inertia behind resisting change amplifies the need for those impacted to understand and accept the reasons driving change.

Remember, change involves a transition from a comfort level to the new and unknown. Communication, collaboration, championing, team strategies and training have all been shown to facilitate acceptance. Having the tools to adapt empowers employees to innovate and solve instead of depend upon established processes. More importantly, enduring change requires that individuals understand how the new behavior contributes in some significant manner to them personally. The emotional connection to a new behavior that comes from the belief that personal growth and satisfaction will result drives employees to embrace the change willingly, and pursue it with a passion that is likely to be sustained over time.

The question of effective change management is one that faces organizations and leaders every day, whether dealing with hidden agendas, long-tenured staff or market fluctuations. The ability to effectively maneuver through organizational transformations to new levels of performance is a cherished leadership commodity.

As Peter Drucker, famed management guru, was known to point out, “It is easier for companies to come up with new ideas than to change old ones.” Tapping into emotions, creating a sense of urgency, and inspiring action through participation all drive organizations forward towards success.

Before your company builds its next metaphorical rocket engine, make sure age-old practices based on obsolete logic are not limiting the solutions. Whether limited by legacy systems, ingrained procedures or subjective beliefs unsupported by current facts, the well-trodden tracks of the past must be challenged in order to make a difference. Take a moment to look objectively and make sure that the tracks you lay today are not merely the continuation of ancient practices.

Steven Callahan, ChFC, CLU, FFSI, FLHC, FLMI/M is practice development director for The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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