Effectively managing organizational change requires more intuition than intellect

In his biography, entitled Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson writes extensively about Jobs’ early years travelling to Indian villages and studying Indian culture and meditation. Jobs was keenly impressed with the Eastern world’s focus on intuition and experiential wisdom, which lay in stark contrast to the more rational, regimented business norms of the West. In one particular excerpt, Jobs discusses how your intuition blossoms and more subtleties get noticed only when you are able to calm the mind down and relieve it from the craziness of Western culture.

I am continually reinforced by the notion that effective change management is more a product of intuition than structured, rational thinking. I often tell clients that for any given change initiative, there is, at most, 60-70% of the work effort that is somewhat predictable – the need to articulate a business case for the change, an assessment of key stakeholders, the development of a communication strategy, the design of a training curriculum supported by a job impact assessment, and other key components of a standard change management framework. These are important ingredients of your change plan, as they ensure that leadership is aligned with the project, the workforce is informed of and competent enough to execute the change, and the likely risks associated with the initiative are understood and mitigated.

But resistance to change can be irrational and, often, quite personal. The ability of the change leader to detect and explore the less obvious, yet most potent, forms of resistance requires intuition, not an intellectual approach to the project plan. The more subtle forms of resistance can be detected only when the change leader, for example, recognizes that the highly competent, “go to” member of a functional team may lose prestige and respect when a new technology automates and “wipes out” the self-created expertise he has built over several years. Or the General Manager in one country refuses to support a new sales process because her region was not included as one of the pilot sites. Or the collections manager who now has responsibilities for collecting receivables at far higher thresholds is nervous about managing conflict with senior client buyers. These are only a few of the many examples that we witness throughout a change effort when we take the necessary time to slow down, sit back, and open our senses. That critical balance between the structure of our work and the exploration of the subtleties in our environment will ensure that we have incorporated both intellect and intuition into our critical role as a change leader.

Indeed, the legacy of Apple Computer that began with Jobs’ vision and tenacity in launching the Macintosh and, later, the iPod and iPhone was not born from intellect as much as from an intuition about what people didn’t know they needed. Such intuition can only be gained from thoughtful observation and inquiry. If we as change leaders can slow ourselves down and apply ourselves to the challenging, but important, task of intuitive thinking, then we can leave that same kind of legacy for how a company can actually thrive during times of change.