When I was a youngster, I excitedly accepted an opportunity to paint my grandmother’s rusty gate. I would receive two Irish pound notes for a task, one which I would have gladly done for free. The gate was in a terrible state and the thought of splashing it with paint was a joy. When I arrived at what I believed might be my station for an hour or so, I realised there was a lot more involved than I thought. Below the gate was a large old blanket, a wire brush, sandpaper and 2 tins of paint, or so I thought. One was the paint, the other was my first introduction to primer. A primer is a preparatory coating put on materials before painting. Priming ensures better adhesion of paint to a surface, increases paint durability, and provides additional protection for the material being painted. Needless to say, the job took me more than an hour, all in all, it took me 2 full days to restore the gate.
Over three decades later, this memory emerged from my memory vaults as a metaphor for what must happen in organisations before any change initiative or innovation programme is rolled out, but so often does not. Just like the well-worn gate must be prepped for renewal, so must an organisation be prepped for any meaningful change.
Priming, a Primer
Priming is the activation of specific concepts in memory for the purposes of influencing subsequent behaviours. Whenever stimuli are received by the senses—sights, sounds, smells, touches, tastes—concepts are automatically activated in memory. Once concepts are activated, they stay activated for a period of time, capable of influencing subsequent behaviours. In simplified terms, brain priming occurs when an external stimulus enters a person’s consciousness through one of the five senses and then triggers a response related to the nature of the input.
The name of a change initiative, how we talk about it and even our non-verbal language when we discuss such programmes prime those around us (including us) on how we approach these initiatives. Take, for example, the immense impact of naming conventions in clinical trials and how expectations modify drug effects. In landmark studies published in the 1960s, researchers injected volunteers with adrenaline. The researchers told the volunteers they were receiving a sedative. How did the volunteers react to receiving a fight or flight hormone under different sets of expectations? When told they were receiving a sedative, recipients of adrenaline reported feelings of calm and relaxation. When told they were receiving a stimulating drug, volunteers reported feelings of anxiety and energy.
Priming the Organisation
One of the main messages in my book, Undisruptable, A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life is that you cannot change business models until you change mental models. We cannot change what people do until how we change how they think.
The data tells us over 70% of transformation programmes fail and in the same breath, 80% of new year’s resolutions fail. This is because organisations are a mass of individuals. To change the organisation, we need to influence change in the people who make up those organisations.
Often leaders believe the strategy alone will be enough to force change. Well, that is akin to me painting over the rusty gate without cleaning it down with the wire brush, without sanding it down, without adding the primer before adding the paint and finally the gloss. Jumping to the gloss is a sure-fire way to add to the 70% failure rate of transformation programmes. Painting over the rust is a temporary fix, leaders in organisations do this all the time due to a plethora of reasons from the tyranny of the urgent, lack of buy-in and often a lack of priming the organisation for change in the first place. How do they do this? Vision, storytelling, listening tours and constant iteration.
The more painful, longer, more frustrating way is the only way. It takes time, it takes persistence, it takes hard work. When we prime the organisation for change, then the new reality will stick and the gloss will stay in place…temporarily.
THANKS FOR READING
How can you help make sure your team doesn’t get stuck in a rut?
How can you encourage people to discover new things, even those that seem to be disconnected from their day jobs?
How can you awaken to opportunities and threats that sneak up on even the most successful of us?
These questions inspired me to create this workshop.
“The Permanent Reinvention” virtual workshop is now available, based on my forthcoming book, “Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life.”
It is a workshop that explores the biases and cognitive traps that prevent us from making our best decisions in business and every other aspect of life.
Feedback has been phenomenal and it is fun and transformational for teams in an age of hiring workshops and Zoom fatigue.
“Come for the evocative metaphors and stories. Stay for the powerful frameworks and practical guidance. Undisruptable is a useful guide to thriving in today’s era of constant change. Highly recommended.” Scott D. Anthony