The Five Obstacles to Making Change Happen
In my article last fall, Why Top Performing Advisors are Exiting the Business, I made the case that only advisors who embrace fundamental change will prosper going forward.
Indeed, most successful advisors say they’re open to making changes to position themselves for the future. After all, everyone has read about the shifting competitive landscape and that as a consequence it’s imperative to alter how we run our businesses.
That raises two questions.
Given that advisors recognize the need to change, why do so many postpone making meaningful modifications to how they work until they start losing clients or get squeezed on profitability … at which point they are playing catchup. By waiting until they have no choice, they realize only a fraction of the benefits from making changes that they would have by moving earlier.
Second, are there ways to improve the odds of making meaningful change in your business? (Spoiler Alert: The answer is yes. Later in this article I’ll point to four proven strategies to make change happen … including a tip from that well-known productivity guru, Jerry Seinfeld.)
The gap between intentions and action
This issue came to the fore at a recent keynote I gave for a large advisor conference. After some preliminary remarks, I asked the audience to do two things:
- Write down the last conference where they’d gotten new ideas for their business.
- Write down all the things they were doing differently as a result of those ideas – not the things they’d meant to do or that were on a to-do list to get around to, but the things they were actually doing differently.
Then I asked the most successful advisor in the room a simple question: Thinking about the last conference he’d attended, how many things was the average advisor who’d attended doing differently as a result of being there.
His answer: two or three things.
I then turned to the other advisors in the audience. What did they think – was an average of two to three things being done differently high, low or about right?
The overwhelming answer was that for most advisors who attend conferences, two to three changes in their business is way too high. If advisors are honest, the number of things they’ve changed as a result of the last conference they attended is a big, fat zero.
Why the shortfall? Was it because the ideas they heard weren’t compelling and advisors weren’t motivated and enthused, intending to implement new intiatives?
The answer from the audience was unanimous. The problem had nothing to do with intentions … it was all about what happened when they got back to their offices.
The barriers to change
At this point, I did a very simple exercise. I asked the advisors in the room to take 60 seconds to make a list the obstacles that had prevented them from acting on their intentions from conferences and then to circle their biggest barrier to change in the past.
When I canvassed the advisors, they identified a long list of obstacles. Here were the top five barriers to change:
Time was the barrier to change that was cited first. For most of us, keeping up with the volume of online communication means that we are time starved – it’s all we can do to keep up with the day-to-day demands of running our business– forget taking on something new. Quite simply, there’s just no time and energy left over to contemplate additional initiatives, unless there is an immediate threat.
2. Existing routines
We’re all creatures of habit. As a result, a second obstacle to change for advisors and their teams is inertia and existing routines. In some instances, a related issue is difficulty getting out of a comfort zone – if things are going well, it’s human nature not to want to shake things up and to obey the impulse to maintain the status quo.
Given how busy we are and the competing demands on time and attention, we live in a “need to do world.” If advisors walk away from a conference saying “That was a neat idea. I could see that working and it would be nice to do it,” chances are that nothing will happen. For most advisors, the only way that intention gets converted into action is if they walk away saying “I have to make this initiative happen – it’s not nice to do; it’s need to do.”
Here’s the problem with implementing new intiatives. The payoff is uncertain; in fact there may not be a payoff at all. Meanwhile there’s no big price to pay in the short term if we don’t act on new ideas.
None of us have unlimited resources – we’re all constrained by time, money, staff and energy. A fourth issue that some advisors said stood in the way of making new ideas happen was resource constraints. That’s especially true when there’s a misalignment of timing between the investment and the rewards, with the cost immediate but the payoff down the road.
5. Team buy-In
A final barrier to change is resistance from advisors’ teams. Even if they’ve pumped about an idea they heard at a conference, when they get back to their offices their teams don’t feel the same level of urgency. Part of that is that advisors’ staff didn’t get the same exposure to the ideas. But the other issue is that staff are often operating at capacity – when presented with a new initiative, their first response is to think about the work in the short term rather than the opportunity down the road. There’s also an issue with incentives that kicks in – often the advisor gets the bulk of the benefit while staff bear the bulk of the cost in terms of extra work.
Overcoming resistance to change
These barriers to change are real … and the only way to overcome them is to put in place a plan designed to overcome them.
Here’s a four-point plan that has proven effective in converting good intentions into action:
1. Narrow down your goals: Less is more
The first strategy for change is very simple: Change fewer things. Many advisors walk away from conferences with pages of ideas and a long to-do list, and promptly get overwhelmed.
Instead, whittle the things you’d like to change to a maximum of three. In truth, for some advisors three is too many. The London School of Economics’ Jeremy Dean is the author of Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t and How to Make Any Change Stick. His research shows that the more things we try to change the less successful we’ll be with any of them … and if we want to maximize the odds of success, we focus on one and only one big change in our businesses.
The architect Mies Van der Rohe is known for an expression that when it comes to building design: “Less is more.” That’s not just true of architecture – it’s also true of making changes to your business.
2. Block out time in your calendar
The second strategy is to block out time in your calendar to dedicate to new activities. This is not a new idea– Benjamin Franklin worked in blocks of time, Charles Dickens wrote in blocks of time and Peter Drucker advocated setting aside large blocks of time for important projects. More recently, Stephen Covey wrote about the tyranny of the urgent pushing aside the important and the need to schedule time in your calendar for important activity.
A recent research study in the U.K. that focused on getting people to exercise reinforced the power of scheduling time for important activities. There were three groups of “non-exercisers” in the study. The first group of participants (the “control group”) was asked to track how often they worked out in the following two weeks. The second group (the “motivation group”) was also asked to track the time exercising but also took five minutes to read a pamphlet on the benefits of exercise. The final group (the “intention group”) was asked to indicate when they planned to exercise in the next two weeks.
- 38% of the control group exercised for at least 20 minutes. (This is what psychologists call the Hawthorne Effect – just by observing someone, their behavior changes.)
- 35% of the motivation group exercised – underperforming the group that had read about the benefits of exercise
- 91% of the intention group exercised – getting people to make a specific commitment as to when they’ll conduct an unpleasant task dramatically increases the chances of follow through.
3. Create Accountability
When it comes to following through on our intentions, even the most disciplined among usfail. That’s why if you’re serious about change you should ask someone to hold you accountable.
Your accountability partner can be someone on your team, another advisor at your firm or even your spouse or a good friend. The core idea is simple: Once a week for the first four weeks that you’re implementing new ideas, you carve out half an hour to sit down. In that 30 minutes, you each answer five questions:
- When we met last, what did I say I was going to do?
- What did I actually do – did I follow through on my commitments in whole, in part or not at all?
- What kind of results did I get – good, neutral, disappointing or is it early to say?
- What did I learn?
- What will I do in the next week?
The idea of meeting weekly for four weeks is to help establish early momentum. At the end of the four-week period you may decide this was a dumb idea and abandon it or move it back to every two weeks or once a month. For advisors who have done this, it has made a big impact helping them stick to their commitments.
One advisor has built this into his Monday morning team meetings. Each week, every team member answers those five questions on what they did last week and what they will do in the coming week. Each week, note-taking duties are rotated and on Monday afternoon whoever took notes is responsible for circulating a summary of commitments to everyone on the team. A second copy of that summary goes out on Thursday morning with the agenda for the team meeting the following Monday – and this advisor told me that in the hour after that reminder note goes out, there is a flurry of activity by his team members ensuring that they meet the commitments that they made.
4. Develop early momentum
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When we embark on making fundamental changes in our lives, it’s easy to get distracted and discouraged and to allow our good intentions to slip and to revert back to old habits. That’s the reason for the appalling track record when it comes to New Year’s resolutions.
To make change happen, we have to build momentum. To lose weight or start to exercise, seeing progress is critical to maintaining momentum. The same principle applies to making changes in your business. Many advisors are used to setting 30- and 60-day goals – and while those are important, 30 days is too far in the future to effect change. Instead focus on weekly and daily goals. Tracking short-term progress is one way to increase your odds of making changes in your business and works in many different contexts. In an article on how to make resolutions stick, I included a success tip from Jerry Seinfeld on how building momentum drove his success as a comedian.
We all know that change is incredibly hard – if it was easy, all of our goals would have been achieved and there’d be no need for articles like this one. But by recognizing the barriers to change and putting in place strategies to overcome them, you can dramatically increase the odds of making the changes to position your business for future success.
Dan Richards conducts programs to help advisors gain and retain clients, and is an award winning faculty member in the MBA program at the University of Toronto. To see more of his written commentaries, go to www.danrichards.com.