Organizational Change – Part 2: Changing organizations is like moving a memory foam mattress

This post is Part 2 of a 4 part series looking at strategies and tactics for creating change in organizations! If you like it, consider signing up at the bottom of the page for email alerts of new posts.

Check here for Part 1: Viral Ideas and Part 3: Sisyphus and Successful Execution.

There’s something elegant about a good analogy, and, as it turns out, creating organizational change has a lot in common with moving an old memory foam mattress. Let me explain.

Anyone who has ever tried to move a memory foam mattress before (not a new internet-era one, but one of the old-school types that’s just slab of foam), will remember a few things: 

  1. They’re surprisingly heavy, 
  2. They’re floppy, 
  3. They grip well. 

As a result, moving one requires: 

  1. More effort than expected,
  2. The application of force in many places at the same time, 
  3. The overcoming of inertia.

All of these characteristics together bear a close resemblance to what it takes to change behaviors inside an organization. Let’s put the pedal to the floor and see how far we can ride this analogy before it burns out…

They’re surprisingly heavy

I once attempted to move a king-size memory foam mattress by myself once. I was young and ambitious and rapidly humbled by the experience. The mattress was much heavier than I anticipated. The same happens with trying to create change in organizations. To borrow from Hofstadter’s Law, “organizational change always takes more effort than expected, even when taking into account this fact”. [For the curious among you, Hoftstadter’s Law reads: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”]

Here’s an example of that memory foam conundrum in the context of a work experience: I’ve spent the last few years working to improve OKR practices across our product development organization. Within a few months of starting the process, I had worked to get buy-in from our leadership team and had planned out and run a goal-setting process for the upcoming quarter. Mission accomplished, right?

Not exactly. Despite getting quick buy-in on the conceptual idea of pursuing OKRs, we’ve encountered different challenges each quarter. The first quarter, I had focused primarily on engineering and realized I hadn’t spent enough time getting buy-in from the product management team. We struggled to prioritize between product initiatives and our new OKRs. Efforts were somewhat aligned, but not enough to avoid needing to troubleshoot and clarify reactively. We used these learnings to make the next quarter better, but each subsequent quarter has revealed deficiencies, requiring ongoing investment from myself and my peers to continue improving our process. Two years later, we’re much better at this, but still working to improve; and I’m still spending time on it.

Had I stopped after expending the time I’d initially budgeted, this project would have died before reaping any benefits.

Lesson: Assume the change you’re after is going to take longer and require more effort and attention than it seems at the beginning. Plan to have the time and resources to account for this.

They’re floppy

If the mattress I mentioned before had just been in the form of a barbell, I could have lifted it. But it wasn’t in the form of a barbell, it was an awkward, artificial sponge, with no handholds and no rigid structure to rely on. I could pick up a corner and the remainder of its bulk would just lie there, completely unperturbed. The only way to get it to move is to find a way to apply force to it in many places at once — like getting friends to each lift a corner of the mattress or attaching straps to make it possible to apply force in multiple locations at the same time. The same techniques apply when attempting to change the behaviors of large groups of people.

New habit formation is a tricky process — one has to replace an existing habit with the updated one. This can fail in a couple of ways: either people never get the message in the first place (they miss your email, for example) or they’re simply not motivated enough to change their behavior. Even if they do read your email, it’s a bit like picking up one edge of the mattress: once your attention moves on, the edge flops back to the floor and the mattress remains in the same position.

This is where applying force in many different locations comes in. If you not only send an email, but also speak about the change in an all-hands meeting, and send out weekly leaderboards of progress, and make it part of a leadership team member’s roadmap for the year, now you’re picking up the mattress from all corners, and things are going to move.

Lesson: Find lots of different ways to convey your message. Try different timing, different incentives, different mediums, different audiences. Keep going until it works (or someone tells you to knock it off).

They’re harder to get moving than to keep moving

Before I could rally some friends to help move the mattress, I managed to wrestle it bit by bit across the floor. The stickiness of the foam made it extremely hard to break loose from the floor, but I realized if I could get it moving, I could keep it moving. God forbid I  needed to pause for a moment though — I would’ve had to start all over again. 

In physics, kinetic friction refers to the force that resists motion of an object in motion (imagine pushing a book across a desk and watching it slow to a halt). Static friction is a force that resists movement of an object at rest. Static friction is typically higher than kinetic friction for a given surface and contact area (you can read all about the physics here if you’re curious, but don’t need to for this analogy to make sense). What this basically means is that it takes less force to keep an object in motion than to get that motion started. Again, this is true for organizational change.

Organizational change often requires a significant up-front investment in time and preparation. Yet, if you can get a solid initial impulse of energy — perhaps by applying force to many areas at the same time — you’ll often be able to keep it moving with a smaller amount of energy than required to get it started. It’s often a good idea to prep your communications and plans ahead of time, then release them all at once, to capture attention and momentum. Once it’s moving, keep it moving.

Lesson: Getting change started takes more energy than keeping it moving. Plan for a heavy initial investment, followed by ongoing investment to keep it from stopping again. If you lose momentum, people will start other projects or otherwise become distracted and you’ll have to rekindle the flame of forward progress.

If you’ll forgive me, one last push on this analogy before we leave: the other lesson here is that while it’s hard, I did eventually manage to get a second pair of hands, get the mattress around some corners, down a flight of stairs, out the front door, and into a moving truck. It was hard, but not impossible, and if you’re dedicated and plan your moves carefully, you can find the same success in your own literal or figurative memory foam scenario. If you can find help, all the better. And each time you try, regardless of success or failure, you are learning how to do it better next time.

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