The human side of transformation

Tom Andrews, President, Organizational Consulting
Laura Kurtz, Ph.D., Behavior Change Strategist

The 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace.” —Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering, Google (via Thank You for Being Late, by Thomas L. Friedman)

Spend any time looking at the pace of technological progress and global interconnection, and you can see why this era—which Thomas Friedman calls “the era of accelerations”—is so unsettling. Our latent ability to adapt is being overtaken by the increasing pace of technology-driven change, and it is getting much harder for leaders to draw upon past experiences as models of the future.

The outcome is a lack of leadership when we need it most. And now we’re seeing the results: whole industries in death spirals because their constituents can’t keep up with change; a diminishment of institutional vigor, and trust in global institutions; and the loss of dignity and output among displaced workers throughout the country, let alone the world.

The answer is not to go around trying to destroy new technology, like the Luddites of old. But rather, to activate our extraordinary human capacity to learn and adapt.

This is a moment for leaders to design for active participation in change—helping individuals, organizations, and societal institutions tap into their human ability to transform.

And that requires a mindset shift: from seeing human beings as an instrument of change to seeing them as the authors and leaders of it.

At SYPartners, we believe the most successful transformations are human

Human-led transformation is about believing in our human capacity to adopt new behaviors, and then intentionally designing the conditions to make change possible in service of a higher ideal.

Over the past 23 years, our company has partnered with hundreds of great leaders to transform their organizations or create platforms for others to change—each time deepening our understanding of behavioral science and what it takes to spark and sustain transformation. That work has evolved into a practice that now spans individual transformation through to the design of movements that can change society at large.

There are many things we have learned and continue to learn. Much is experiential knowledge that this article cannot hope to cover. But underpinning what we have learned is a basic premise of social psychology:

Lasting transformation requires a marriage of belief and ability.

Whether it’s at work, at home, or let’s face it, when considering your monthly gym dues, even the simplest behavior change requires both belief (the motivation and commitment to change) and ability (the competence, skills, and resources necessary to change).

This is true in individual transformations, organizational transformations, and all the way to broad societal change movements. But what we are seeing is that most transformation fails to catch or stick because people focus on just one or two tactics they’re used to, or they neglect to consider the right balance of belief and ability.

For example, leaders of an organizational transformation may look through the lens of training and assume that everyone is automatically bought in to change and just needs to be trained on it. They invest time and resources in new training procedures or policies, and miss the need to connect their employees to a deeper sense of purpose or a vivid new future-state—and transformation never catches momentum.

Other leaders fall into the trap of thinking that their employees will be able to shift their habits if only they believed more in the change. Employees are invited to a large corporate rallying event to get fired up about the future, only to find that they don’t know how to incorporate new behaviors into their daily routines. Or worse, and sadly all too often, they discover that current policy is actually contradictory to the behaviors they are supposed to adopt. 

Human-led transformation that sticks requires a more expansive mindset, and of course a more humanistic one. As a leader, think of expanding your responsibility for the psychology of change, and expanding the range of tools and resources you use, in order to endow people with both the belief and the ability to transform.

Consider the model below, which shows a series of human factors that drive transformation.

It’s a good idea to first start with a sense of purpose and possibility—what it is you are seeking to create, and why it matters—then you can assess what is needed from a belief and ability standpoint for true transformation to take hold.

The full journey of transformation unfolds in ways that go beyond this article, and require a story, a plan, and a process for staying on course. But regardless of the process you use, the more you can encourage people to be authors of transformation, and consider the marriage of belief and ability, the more you can create the capacity for ongoing transformation. Not to mention, the more you will find that change is no longer something to be feared, but actually something joyful and exhilarating.

Given the era we are now entering, such an expansion of mindset and approach seems critical.



Factors affecting people’s belief and commitment to transform:

  • Personal Relevance: How are we helping people connect their work to their own values and goals? How might we more closely align everyday actions to a deeper sense of purpose so that an individual is more awake and alive to their full potential?
  • Emotional Drivers: What emotion is driving people today—fear that something bad will happen, or optimism in pursuit of something good? What emotion do we want to inspire in the work ahead?
  • Support Systems: How are people being supported and cared for in a way that reinforces the right behaviors? Where are the gaps?
  • Group Cohesion: How are we nurturing and building strong teams? How might we ensure that new behaviors and initiatives create unity, rather than disruption?
  • Sense of Belonging: How are we creating a sense of belonging within teams and in the broader organization? What permissions and conditions will enable everyone to show up as their best selves?
  • Rewards & Recognition: What behaviors get recognized and rewarded in our culture? What new behaviors need to be acknowledged? What old behaviors must stop?
  • Leadership Role Modeling: How often do senior leaders and respected figures model change for the rest of the organization? What behaviors might they model more strongly?
  • Social Norms: How are the social norms within our culture (or society at large) affecting our ability to create change? How might we harness norms to our benefit, or create new rituals to make behaviors stick?

Factors affecting people’s ability to transform:

  • Level of Competence: What are the current gaps in skills and knowledge required to enact change? How might we better train/mentor/advise our people?
  • Access to Resources: What resources are required for change to take place? How might we get creative with how we invest, allocate resources, and partner to maximize our impact?
  • Clarity of Communication: How are vision, strategy, and expectations being communicated? How might we use storytelling, a new frame, or a different medium to communicate in a more compelling and authentic way?
  • Distribution of Effort/Skill: How are we managing the responsibility (and impact) of change across different roles and teams? How might we be more deliberate about the experience of each constituent?
  • Space & Infrastructure: What does our physical environment say about what we value? How might we use it to both catalyze and reinforce the right behaviors?
  • Organizational Policy: How do our organization’s existing policies support (or impede) our desired behaviors and outcomes? What policies or structures must be redesigned?
  • Governance: How do current societal policies and movements—legal and political—affect our ability to enact change?


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