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.