• Steve

The power of desirable change

Updated: Jun 24, 2020

Every time someone says that we ‘need to’ do something it has a rational basis, but the evidence is that we often reject these logical arguments in favour of maintaining our existing habits. At an individual level common ‘you need to’ suggestions would be; drink less, exercise more, stop smoking, recycle more, eat less red meat, use your car less, the list goes on. Often ‘need to’ leads to positive intentions, but we know that these intentions generally fail.

To illustrate this, many years ago, I became involved in a Smoking Cessation service and even then the ‘golden rule’ was to ask if people had considered stopping smoking. If they hadn’t then there wasn’t any point in continuing to support them. You’d be wasting your time and resources. Essentially, if there wasn’t even the smallest desire to want to give up then all the support in the world wouldn’t help. Even with the desire to give up, it takes eight attempts on average to kick the habit.

Historical Example of ‘Want to’ Change

History shows that when there is a desire to ‘want to’ change, it’s a completely different matter.

The Wright Brothers are a perfect historical example. Two brothers who ran a bicycle repair shop, with limited finances, and no higher education, but who shared a passion for flying. It was this desire to fly that created their breakthrough, solving one of the most complex issues of the time ahead of better educated and better resourced individuals and teams.

It's All About People

Organisations are just collections of lots of people, so to effect change, a groundswell of people who ‘want to’ change is needed before any change can be achieved and sustained. Despite this, many organisations still pursue the ‘need to’ change approach. When this happens, much of the change effort is focused on persuasion. At best this leads to compliance rather than desire, leading to mediocre results. We have hundreds of examples of projects like this, missing huge opportunities for beneficial outcomes. Occasionally, we’ve come across changes where the persuasion has worked, but these all relate to intuitive technology that made something easier to do with minimum effort.

This is why, in all our work, we focus on helping others to find the desirable vision that can add energy and pace to their changes and deliver sustainable outcomes for organisations.

To illustrate how desire can play an important part in making positive changes we will use two stories that typify the ‘want to’ v ‘need to’ approaches and outcomes. In both stories, the strategic drivers were about finance.

‘Need to’ Change Story

The first is a medium sized organisation with around 4000 staff. It was seeking to make savings of roughly 5-10% of turnover, driven by challenges in the sector. Leadership had just completed their annual strategy process and wanted to outline the strategy and engage with staff. They setup multiple sessions in a large venue to ensure everyone had the opportunity to be involved. Many staff were excited about this new approach and booked on one of the events. The CEO stood proudly and opened the session and within a few minutes outlined the key strategic objective for the organisation, ‘we need to make efficiencies and save £X million’. Enthusiasm dropped immediately and staff became increasingly subdued as they explored how they could achieve this.

A governance structure was then established and some ideas were developed and supported, however it became clear that few ideas were being suggested and that the organisation would struggle to achieve their strategic target. In the absence of sufficient progress or ideas to tackle the strategic objective, more and more ideas from senior management were being developed and implemented top-down. Over time greater controls, stronger processes and more detailed analysis were introduced, all seeking to provide the Board with reassurance. These activities took over from those that could have helped; staff engagement, devolved decision making, communications, solution development and design etc. The result was that although some savings from efficiencies were made, the organisation only achieved around 30% of the objective.

‘Want to’ Change Story

Contrast this with three organisations working together in a new service area (Adolescent Mental Health Services), where relationships and trust hadn’t been established. Their big challenge was to manage a new service budget that had been transferred to them, but where service demand was growing at 8% per annum. Any overspend against the agreed budget would have to be taken from other existing services. The organisation Boards were concerned, but reassured by a plan to invest upstream in services to reduce demand. This plan would take roughly a year to take full effect, leaving the organisations with a financial risk.

At the time many adolescents were admitted to services miles from home leading to longer stays and poorer outcomes.

It was agreed that some benefit may come from reviewing part of the service identified as a key leverage point, bed management. A series of workshops were arranged to engage with staff in the bed management functions. As staff in different organisations didn’t know or trust each other, early workshops were difficult. One element they all agreed was that the level of admissions to distant units were too high and the impact on young people and families was significant, with some families unable to travel and visit, often due to time and costs involved. This detachment often impacted on the mental health of young people, leaving them feeling even more isolated, just at a time when they were at their most vulnerable. From this burning platform came a unified desire to tackle this, through aligning services and overcoming rivalries. Within a few weeks the vision they created changed to a full integration of the bed management functions as it was felt such it would be better able to reduce distant admissions. Although, this integration would likely change their jobs and perhaps even their work base, the desire to make a difference was stronger than these fears.

The regular workshops then started to focus on structures, processes and working arrangements and with us as independent coordination they began working through the design of the new integrated function.

When, months later, they were ready to start putting the new structures and processes in place, they discovered that the number of distant admissions had dropped by 75%. A huge step forward. This was achieved without having changed a single structure or process. What had happened was that behaviours had changed. Through the process of building relationships, designing the new function, and a desire to ensure that families and young people didn’t experience the impact of isolation when they most needed to be together. Behaviours changed as people had started to have very different conversations, developed innovative solutions to prevent distant admissions and were challenging previous habits.

In the two years following, the impact of the integrated bed management and upstream investments, distant admissions fell further to 93% of the original level and demand fell by 32% overall, highlighting the sustainability of changes driven by desirable visions.


These two stories illustrate the huge differences in the outcome from changes driven by either a ‘want to’ or ‘need to’ perspective. One driving change from compliance and the other from commitment.

There were many opportunities in the first story to tap into similar emotive issues, however due to the way the change was presented and how people experienced the change process they never felt ownership or desire to be involved in the change.

In our experience, ’need to’ change achieves mediocre at best, and ‘want to’ desirable change generally over achieves.

Like us, you may have been trained in the classic scientific management informed approaches driven top down and reliant on persuading staff that they ‘need to’ change. It’s a world of tussling with resistance to change, it’s energy sapping.

It’s challenging to let go of how we’ve been trained make the shift to engaging, helping staff to build their own future and generating their desire to change. Not only is it rewarding, but it’s also easier. All the work is at the beginning, describing the ambition in a way that engages. The work is then the development of relationships and supporting people to build their future. Once they’ve done this, they then need leadership to maintain an environment that is psychologically safe for people to explore and learn, to keep up with the pace and remove the blockers that might slow them down.

The work we do with Clients not only helps people to create their desirable vision, but also the wider environment that generates fast organisation outcomes. It is one of seven enablers we identified within complex changes that had energy and pace.

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