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How Do You Get People to Accept Change?

Two men having discussion, overhead view

Why do people resist change? This question is critical for any company trying to launch a new product or seeking to change the way its employees work. David Schonthal is the clinical professor and director of entrepreneurship programs at the Kellogg School of Management. 

His new book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas, which he co-authored with Loran Nordgren, explores the reasons behind these frictions.

SCHONTHAL: One of the temptations entrepreneurs and innovators who want to bring new ideas into the world have is to promote the newness of the thing. If my product is radically different from the existing products on the market, I’m going to play up all those unique features and benefits that my product has. 

But counterintuitively, the answer to overcoming inertia isn’t to play up the newness of the thing, it’s to make a new thing or a new idea feel more familiar. 

It’s almost the opposite of what most entrepreneurs think. Most think that they need to show you all of these bells and whistles, when in fact, the bells and whistles may deepen the sense of inertia. My coauthor, Loran Nordgren, and I looked at the frictions that work against people embracing change. In the book, we identify four frictions: Inertia, Effort, Emotion and Reactance. 

Why a Desktop Is Called a Desktop

BRINK: Can you give any examples of overcoming inertia that are particularly striking?

SCHONTHAL: If you think back to the late eighties when Apple was first attempting to bring personal computers into everybody’s home, the status quo was computers designed for business people. So if you wanted to use an IBM or a Commodore, you almost had to speak the language of computers in order to run them, with their DOS-based systems. 

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak understood that if you’re going to increase the size of the market, you have to turn non-consumers into consumers. And the way to do that is to design a product that works the way the rest of their world works. 

In other words, to make an unfamiliar idea more familiar, which is why it’s not an accident that the home screen of a Macintosh OS is called a desktop. And why you put your documents into folders. And when you’re done with them, you put them in the trash. 

We live in a world where nobody will tolerate reading a user manual anymore. We expect a product to work intuitively the moment we fire it up or press the power button. And that’s a radical shift from how consumer behavior worked even 15 years ago.

None of us wants to be changed by others. 

What Shall I Do With My Old Sofa?

BRINK: You talk about effort, which is obviously related to inertia. Can you expand on that?

SCHONTHAL: Effort is the real or perceived amount of exertion required in order to adopt a change. So this can be physical exertion, it can be mental exertion, it can be economic exertion. How much are we asking people to put in their own work in order to adopt this new idea? 

There are lots of stories of how a really small bit of effort that nobody would have considered stood in the way of the adoption of a new idea. One example is a furniture startup that makes custom furniture for young people. Their value proposition is that they can make an entirely custom piece of furniture, sofa, chair, dining room table, at 70% less than it would cost to get that custom work done elsewhere. 

Millennial and Gen Z consumers gravitate toward this manufacturer. They love the design. They love the ability to customize, and they will spend sometimes hours in the store or online customizing the exact piece that they want to create. 

But then this really weird thing happens: Right when they’re about to press purchase in the online transaction, they back away from the sale and say they need a little bit more time to think or abandon their cart.

Initially, the company thought it needed to make the price lower, or amplify the benefits of the service more, or change the product. But the research showed that people couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of purchasing a new sofa until they had figured out what they’re going to do with their existing sofa. 

Are they going to have to lug this thing out of their apartment themselves? Do they have to hire movers? Can they just put it in the alley? Will the rubbish company haul it away? Can they get it donated? And that becomes overwhelming, so people just throw their hands up and say, “I’m not ready to make this change at this moment in time.” 

So a company could keep trying to tweak its offer, tweak its value proposition and so forth, but it may be just amplifying the friction and not doing anything to mitigate it.

The Real Reasons We Resist Change

BRINK: Another major friction is reactance, which seems like an innate human impulse to resist change.

SCHONTHAL: Reactance is a human being’s natural instinct to push back on being changed by others. It doesn’t matter how good an idea is. None of us wants to be changed by others.

We have this deep desire for autonomy and believing that we are in control of our own decisions. And reactance is this impulse to push when we feel like change is being forced upon us, or it’s the same reason we recoil when we feel like we are being sold to. 

We love new things, but we want them to be our idea.

Self Persuasion Is Always More Powerful Than Outside Persuasion

There was some research done back in the fifties and sixties on Korean war veterans in the United States who consciously decided they were going to abandon the United States and become citizens of North Korea. 

The way this was done was simply to engage them in a different type of conversation, which didn’t begin by telling them why it was beneficial to switch sides. So the conversations began by asking a question like, “Would you agree that no government or country is perfect?” 

And, of course, that’s a rational question that these POWs would nod their head and say, “Yeah, I can agree that no government or country is perfect.” And then the follow up question is, “Then by definition, you are also saying that your government or country is imperfect?” And the POWs would say, “Yes.” And then the next question is, “Tell me some ways in which your government has let you down.” 

A Self-Generated Argument

What’s happening here is that it’s not me telling you what to feel or what to think; I’m creating an opportunity for you to self-generate an argument. Self-persuasion is always going to be more powerful than influencing persuasion from an external force. 

And so the lesson for businesses is not necessarily to tell people what to do or to present more data, better data, stronger data; it’s to engage people in conversations that warm them up to the opportunity to create a self-generated argument, versus something that’s being imposed on them.

David Schonthal

Coauthor of The Human Element

David Schonthal is a clinical professor and director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the Kellogg School of Management. Outside of academia, David’s work in the fields of design, innovation consulting and venture capital has led to the creation and launch of over 200 new products and services around the world.

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