Incrementalism or radical transformation?

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Here’s a staggering statistic. Ninety percent of you reading this post if given the choice between changing your behavior and dying will chose dying. This is not hyperbole nor is it trick to get your attention. It’s a fact. And for those of you who think you would choose change over death the statistics say you’re deceiving yourself.

Here’s why. In 2006, Dr. Edward Miller, the CEO and Chief Medical Officer of John Hopkins Hospital spoke to a group of IBM executives and said, “We know and have known that the real causes of poor health and disease in United State are lifestyle issues. We eat too much, we smoke, we drink too much, we don’t exercise enough and we have too much stress.”

Dr. Miller went on to say “in the United States we perform 1.3 million heart transplants and 600,000 angioplasties each year with a total cost of thirty billion dollars.” Yes, you read that right $30,000,000,000!  And for that $30,000,000,000 what patients receive is not a long-term solution for cardiovascular disease, but rather time and an opportunity to make healthier lifestyle choices.

But what’s staggering is that Dr Miller went on to say that “90% of all the people who have had heart bypass surgery and or an angioplastie within two years of their surgery have gone back to the exact same lifestyle they had before the surgery.”

Ninety percent! These men and women were given a choice to either change their behavior or risk premature death and they chose not to change.

There is hope however. Individuals who were given the choice to enter a structured behavior modification program where they would learn to cook and eat a low fat diet, would attend group exercise classes five times a week while learning meditation to reduce their stress levels – 72% of these individuals were still on their exercise and nutrition program two years later and had reversed their heart disease.

The 72% chose radical transformation and not incremental change!

It’s been said that the hardest thing to do in life is leave a warm bed for a cold room. The warmth of the predictable and known when compared with  the fear of the cold and the unknown leaves many of us bedding down with the 90%. For many of us we’ve convinced ourselves that gradual and incremental change is acceptable when what’s required is a radical transformation.

I have two beliefs about change management that are reinforced by Dr. Miller’s comments. They are:

1.  Incremental change, while appealing is not going to save your life, your teams reputation or your organizations balance sheet.

2. Most training and professional development initiatives are doomed to fail because they’re viewed as events to be checked off the HR departments to-do list (resulting in a 90% reverting to our old behaviors outcome), and not seen by senior executives as an opportunity to radically transform employee performance through a comprehensive and structured behavior change methodology (think of the 72% here.)

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a place for lean manufacturing principles and a Kiazen mindset. I am suggesting that in affairs of strategic planning and areas where strategic differentiation or a crisis in your industry are concerned, your belief that incremental improvement will save the day is misguided and places you squarely in the 90% group.

If you want to be part of the 72% group here are five questions to start you on your way:

1. Do you find it difficult to change your diet and or exercise habits? If yes, what have you done successfully to address this difficulty and live a healthful lifestyle?

2. With no one around for for you to answer to other than yourself, would you admit to being part of the 90% group? (I am when it comes to sweets)

3. Are you seeing the 90% group show up at work? If so, what strategies have you adopted to address combat this complacency?

4. Are your training and professional development strategies geared toward information transfer or behavior change? If the later, how do you know if you’re being successful?

5. Based on your answers, what are the implications for your organization?


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