A Formula for Change

Is there a way, before starting out on a change process, to know how much change the community will accept? Not really, because, as in card games, luck and your skill as a player will have a major bearing. But there is a way of thinking about what causes communities (or organizations or even individuals) to accept change. And if you use this simple formula as a guide, it should increase the odds that, luck and skill aside, the change should be significant.

It’s called the Harvard Change Model, and it has three elements:

  • Dissatisfaction with the status quo
  • A model or vision of how things would work if the issues were fully resolved
  • A plan for getting to that vision

When written as a sentence it looks like this: The level of change (that’s the delta symbol above) is equal to the amount of dissatisfaction times the clarity of the model (or vision) times the acceptance of the plan for achieving the model. Change = D x M x P

I’ll explain in a minute how the formula works, but first a note about how I learned about it. It was from David Connell, who was head of corporate education at a large utility company based in Atlanta. We had started work on a regional economic development project when he took out a marker and, on a flip chart, wrote down the formula and explained it to me. He had learned it from consultants from the Harvard Business School; hence, the name. We used the formula in that civic project and several others in the next few years, and I’ve used it ever since. (By the way, David is now the president and CEO of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce in suburban Atlanta, so civic work apparently agreed with him.)

Now, about the formula: It is based on the commonsense notion that no one accepts change unless he’s unhappy with the way things are, has faith that things could be better, and knows what will come next (and what might be asked of him). So the work of those who want change is to:

  • Increase the level of dissatisfaction (push up “D”).
  • Help people arrive at an appealing model of the future (push up “M”).
  • Win broad acceptance of a plan for reaching the model (push up “P”).

But what’s with the multiplication? It’s there, David explained, because each element amplifies the others. The greater the level of dissatisfaction, the greater the desire to find an appealing vision. The clearer the vision, the more people are motivated to take the first steps toward it. And so on.

If you plug in some numbers, you can see more clearly how it works. If you have significant dissatisfaction (7 on a scale of 1 to 10), but don’t get much buy-in on a vision (2) or a plan (again, 2), here’s how much change you’ll get: 7 x 2 x 2 = 28.

But let’s say you could somehow double the acceptance of the vision and plan (that is, from go from 2 to 4), here’s what you’d get: 7 x 4 x 4 = 112 or four times as much change. And if you could do equally as well with the vision and plan as with the dissatisfaction? 7 x 7 x 7 = 343, which raises the level of change by a factor of more than 12.

The numbers, of course, are illustrative. I’m not sure I could distinguish what separates people at level 6 dissatisfaction from those at level 7. But the point is that each element is important and connected. And by working hard on each part, you multiply your effectiveness.

After David explained it to me, he wrote down another version of the formula. This time, he said, let’s imagine you had the highest level of dissatisfaction possible along with an almost universal acceptance of how things could work in the future . . . but had no plan for achieving it. In other words, 10 x 10 x 0. What level of change would you get, he asked me.

It has been a long time since I learned algebra, but even I knew the answer. When you place a zero in an equation, you get . . . zero. And if you neglect any element of the change process, that’s what you can expect: zero change.

This is part of a series of brief postings called Rules for Reformers. For an introduction to the series, please click here.

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