Why can’t people follow instructions? Or maybe more accurately why wont people follow instructions?
This was brought home to me recently during some small changes in a community group I run online. It got me thinking about how we implement change, and why change management programs often fail to meet expectations.
In the worlds of project management, software updates and software deployment (CRM, ERP etc), training and in fact any change management situation where we need people to stop doing one thing and do another.
Why can’t (wont) people follow instructions?
We know that change often:
- Takes longer
- Costs more
- Does not deliver the performance enhancements expected at the outset.
It seems that many of us in the change management world have been overlooking some basics. Let me explain.
A recent case study on following instructions in change
I run several community groups on LinkedIn. I consider LinkedIn to be a place where intelligent professionals go for information, networking and learning. These are highly qualified and competent people.
In one group I run we have a process.
Change from one simple process to another for reasons of reducing user time and being more efficient. The WIIFM (What Is In It For M – was personal time saving).
The process helps people to get their profile seen and their name high in the LinkedIn search results.
When I initiated a small change to the process, based on what I had learnt, the wheels came off. People started failing.
Why did the change fail? Why did a small change that was clearly explained cause so many people so much problems?
Let’s look at the process that was followed:
The process on the surface was simple.
Members of the group had to do a number of tasks that are common practice in LinkedIn.
Nothing difficult. No special software required.
The process was clearly laid out in a series of steps:
Step 1 – do x
Step 2 – do y
Step 3 – do z
And yet a significant percentage of people seemed at random to select what step they started at, and what they did or did not do. Then they complained when they did not get the result they were expecting.
We checked the instructions. They were clear. Others checked and agreed they were clear. So what went wrong? Why did so many people have problems?
A little experiment
Before you read the remainder of this article please complete this simple 3 step process:
<experiment code removed as it failed to run in browsers> Oct 2018
So what went wrong?
Why did so many people not follow the process or procedure?
Why did they do their own thing rather than the process being described.
Then THEY complained when things did not work. Some people FAILED to follow the process despite being told that all steps were needed.
Some people failed 3 times before they finally followed the appropriate procedure!
It was clear that the process was not being followed, and yet many of them genuinely believed they were following the documented process.
Why is it that highly intelligent and educated people fail to follow a simple 3 step process? Many of these people had PhD’s , MBA etc. One person was a software test engineer, their job is to test such procedures!
So what went wrong?
Much like (most) men and Ikea furniture, we think we know better. The instructions are the LAST thing we look at, rather than the first.
What are the implications for Organizational Change Programs?
Over the years I have been involved in many change projects. Some more successful than others. In hindsight most of the problems we encountered were due to people not following a process.
This recent series of experiences (it happened more than once!!), has highlighted for me one of the biggest problems we face in change management in organizations. One that I and many others have overlooked for a long time.
Focus on resistance to change
Many change management programs focus on change resistance. We go to great lengths to identify possible factors that people will resist. We put in strategies to reduce this resistance. And yet most process related change programs still fail. We are missing a key point or change management factor.
The point is that people do not follow Instructions.
It is not that people do not WANT to follow instructions, but it is almost like we are programmed not to.
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Now first I must say that this was not research at Cambridge University – yes another myth!
The example here shows clearly that we read what we think we see. Not which is actually there!
Of course these are extreme versions, but it neatly highlights that our brains put things in place that are not really there. This has massive implications for change management interventions.
This is another great example:
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It’s almost like we are programmed to see what we expect to see, NOT what is actually there.
Implications for Change Management Programs
For those of us involved in change management programs, no matter how large or small. We need to take into account that whilst most people will have the intent in following instructions or procedures, the reality is very different.
In my examples above, the changes were very narrow and small. Success in the change was important to all. managers of the group wanted to do less support, members wanted an easy life. The new instructions were clearly explained. The changes were limited in scope. In that they were an isolated process and not a person whole job. Also most people welcomed the changes, so resistance to change was less of a factor.
Conclusions – Why can’t people follow instructions?
Why do change management programs fail? Sometimes it’s resistance to change or a lack of clear vision or direction. In this piece however we are focused on the intelligent human beings apparent inability to follow simple instructions.
It is increasingly clear to me that despite peoples best intentions, most of us just cannot follow instructions. Be those instructions a process, how to use software or the assembly of self-assembly furniture. Worse, the more intelligent people are, the less likely they are to follow instructions!
We need to factor this inability to follow simple instructions or guidance into our change management programs and project implementations.
There are of course effective instructional design techniques that we can use to help reduce this risk. For it is a risk to our organizations. We need to ensure that we “test” for accurate process compliance, as this could lead to frustration.
When communicating change and processes it is critical that we share the vision in total clarity. It is also critical that we say why and then how. When we give people processes or procedures (especially if similar to the old ways) it is important to give people skills or process repetition and safe places to change and practice.
NEVER assume people will follow processes and instructions – as even if they think they are – they wont! at least not until its a habit!
Why can’t people follow instructions? Or maybe more accurately why wont people follow instructions? This was brought home to me recently. It got me thinking about how we implement change, and why change management programs often fail to meet expectations.
UPDATE – Why do people fail to follow instructions?
I have been asked about research behind this piece. Unfortunately it is due in part to ego. In their paper ‘Psychological Entitlement Predicts Failure to Follow Instructions‘ Zitek and Jordan (2017) cover the reasons behind some of the issues impacting organisations and behaviours.
Why do people fail to follow instructions?
They found that “.. entitled individuals were more likely to ignore instructions about how to format their responses” and ” entitled people were more likely to ignore instructions even when following instructions was low cost for the self, instructions were given in a less controlling way, or punishment was highly likely to result from a failure to follow instructions.”
Specifically Zitek and Jordan (2017) found that “Our studies suggest that the relationship between entitlement and ignoring instructions may be due to entitled individuals’ greater likelihood of regarding instructions as an unfair imposition on them. It seems that entitled individuals would rather incur a personal cost than agree to something unfair”.
The challenge to us in business of course is to help to show what is or is not “unfair” in the mind of the individual.
Zitek, E. M., & Jordan, A. H. (2017). Psychological Entitlement Predicts Failure to Follow Instructions. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550617729885.