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Ever tried landing a Boeing 737 using floor pedals?

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to “fly” in a Boeing 737 flight simulator of an airline. The simulator created a very realistic sensation. It banked to side, pitched and yawed when I moved the flight control yoke, and shook when it encountered bad weather. The instructor programmed my flight to land at the Bayan Lepas airport.

Change and Behavioral Momentum

Prior to starting the flight, the instructor explained the basics of landing an aircraft. It was then that I realized that once an aircraft has landed on the runaway, steering it involves using pedals on the floor and not the steering wheel-like flight control yoke. Roger, I understood it. Yet, when my plane landed on the runaway my hands instinctively started trying to steer the plane using the flight control yoke. My mind could not get my feet to apply pressure on the pedal to steer the aircraft. This is in spite of the fact that I already knew that I had to use the pedal to steer the aircraft. Apparently, the habit formed from years of driving a car became so entrenched in my mind and response behavior that I simply could not change my behavior. In the end, the plane ended on the grass after slipping off the runaway.

Management researchers call this phenomenon “behavioral momentum”. People become so accustomed with old habits that even when they accept the need to change, they often keep on repeating the old entrenched behaviors. This is a typical problem encountered during change initiatives. These individuals do not resist the change. The behavioral momentum created from past habits are just so strong that people find it difficult to shift to the new behaviors and work routines needed by the change.

One of the experiences I had encountered in consulting was when my team recommended a change in business model to a company. We recommended that they shift from being a reseller of technology to a solution based company. Our analysis showed that the profit margin from reselling the products of principals was declining. The highest profit margin is to be found in developing solutions to help clients solve their business problems. Solutioning requires bringing together products from multiple principals and integrating them in a way that improves the client’s business performance. Everyone in the company agreed to the idea. The company’s board endorsed the new business model, management agreed to the idea and everybody gave a positive response. Yet, many of the people in the company continued to behave like they are resellers. Instead of taking the new approach, they just succumbed to the temptation to just do what they are familiar. Selling is easier. It is much simpler than designing and implementing a solution.

Change and Behavioral Momentum

Managing change is very much like toilet training your baby. It takes time, it requires monitoring and feedback and sometime is requires reward and occasionally punishment. The comfort of doing what people are used to is just very strong. For the baby, just letting everything flow out freely into the diaper is very easy compared to controlling the bladder and going to the toilet. On the other hand, learning new things can be daunting. Mistakes are likely to be made. The new skills and routines may take time to be mastered. Sometime the lack of communication and support leaves people in the dark on what exactly the change initiative is all about and how it is supposed to affect the individual.

Never assume that because an organization has had a launching ceremony to kick off a change initiative that change will therefore happen. Never assume that training is all that is needed to change behaviors. All of us learn to drive safely in order to get our driving license. But this does not mean everyone will drive safely. Behavioral momentum is a powerful source of inertia that keeps people trapped in their old habit.

Managing change will require addressing the inertia created by behavioral momentum. People are not going to be creative if they’ve spent years of their working life being told to just comply with rules. Likewise, as complains about our education system shows, people are not going to become thinkers if they’ve been taught to just be passive learners throughout their life. The impact of behavioral momentum has to be unlocked to get people to change.