The Muscle Memory of Change

February 18, 2011 by Vanessa 

Change is hard; even if you want to change.  For example, cross your arms the way you normally do.  Now try crossing them the opposite way.  It’s unclear where you put your right hand, then your left. It’s uncomfortable and you have to think about it.   It’s a simple action that you do every day, and when you’re asked to do a familiar thing in a slightly different way — it just feels unnatural!

That’s in part why change is difficult.  It’s not that we don’t want to change.  Nor it is that we don’t understand the goal, direction or what to do.  These concepts are important and actually critical to any sales enablement endeavor.  However an even more fundamental principle is at work.  Muscle memory. Changing the familiar muscle memory of behaving, thinking and working with others is hard.

This ‘muscle memory’ concept was discussed in depth by Dr. Brian Lambert at Forrester’s inaugural Sales Enablement Forum this week in San Francisco.  Muscle memory is important.  For example it keeps us upright after many years of not riding a bike!  Recognizing this capabilty and then working to create new muscle memory is key to successful sales enablement projects.

Crossing your arms is one thing.  Now magnify the complexity a 1,000-fold by starting a sales enablement initiative.  This requires changing how organizations support sales across the ecosystem, including sales support, training, marketing, HR, IT and of course the sales organization itself.  You’re asking an entire organization to conduct business a new way and risk possible failure.  It may be the right thing but it is uncomfortable, it is scary.  That is because it isn’t a habit – as yet…

How do you create this change and reduce the potential for failure?  Of course you need executive buy in and stakeholder support.  And you need to motivate and engage while reinforcing to make it a habit.  According to Dr. Lambert, change requires addressing both the individual behavior as well as the organizational support.   Understanding the differences between the old and the new behaviors is key.  Once you understand these differences, it becomes easier to communicate what needs to change.

This communication is critical.  Here is sage advice from a friend who has been involved in many change management initiatives, ‘Motivate from the top down and energize from the bottom up’.

And if you haven’t had the chance to read ‘Switch, How to Change Things When Change is Hard’ by Chip and Dan Heath, I recommend reading before you start your next project.

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2 Responses to “The Muscle Memory of Change”

  1. John Cousineau on February 18th, 2011 6:11 pm

    Vanessa: thanks for this. Puts an exclamation mark on my disappointment at not being able to attend. As any smoker knows, changing bad habits isn’t easy. As any craftsman knows, honing effective habits takes years of practice.

    I echo Brian’s points, and your pointer to read ‘Switch’. I’d add to this, the challenge of awakening sales people to the possibilities of how changes they make can improve the results they see. IMO, when Reps can see how their behaviors affect buyer actions, they’re inspired to try new things. When they can see, quickly, how small changes improve their impacts with buyers, we quicken the pace with which we can provoke small changes in behavior, and see incremental improvements in buyer traction. IMO, such small changes with fast, observable, buyer impacts hold the key to accomplishing enduring, large scale, improvements in sales productivity.

    Trust this adds some value – John

  2. Vanessa on February 20th, 2011 7:12 pm

    John, Thanks for your comments. As an ex-smoker I know all too well how hard it is to break that habit! And to your point, yes even small changes, in the right direction, can make significant improvements in sales productivity.

    And as Dr. Brian Lambert says to make these improvements we need to focus on the motivation, the mechanisms and the means for the individual behavior change with support from the organization. In the case of sales enablement, the motivation could be the more positive response from prospects, mechanisms could be the knowledge and skills to produce this response, and then means is the ability to learn and improve the next time the sales person interacts with their prospect.

    Your thoughts?

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