A recent comment grabbed my attention: “People change not when they see the light, but when they feel the heat.”
I thought it amusing—and a tad cynical. But not convincing. Of course people will adjust their behavior when they feel the heat—and do things differently to avoid pain. The proverbial “stick” has worked quite well for quite a few millennia. As one US intelligence officer put it (carefully articulating his philosophy of change): “I’m a fan of 220 volts.”
But is this the whole story? And is this the kind of change we want?
To test theories about anything, I usually look to pop music (perhaps reflecting my emotional maturity). I wondered what a highly productive rock band could teach us about what best motivates change—and especially successful change.
So I turned to The Beatles, the most commercially triumphant and most critically acclaimed pop music team in history. What brought about their biggest career-changing moves—which in the end turned out to be spectacularly successful? Did they have a realization, an epiphany, a perceptual shift that had them see the world differently, which called for a new set of actions? Or were they feeling uncomfortable pressure from someone or something that coerced them to do things differently?
Here’s how I would explain four of the most momentous decisions or “course corrections” that the Fabs made:
1. They began writing and performing original material for their live performances in 1960-1961. Every other rock band in Liverpool at the time was doing a similar repertoire of American pop/rock standards, so they decided to depart from the formula. Paul McCartney’s realization was ”we weren’t going to get anywhere unless we were different…original.” Performing some of their own songs guaranteed that. And with constant practice the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney turned into a pop song juggernaut, perhaps the most successful ever. I’d chalk this up to seeing the light.
2. They decided in late 1960 that they needed to put on an exciting live show. In 1959 they lost a band competition in Manchester to a wildly animated but not so talented skiffle group, as described in a previous post. The lesson stuck in John Lennon’s craw that audiences sometimes prefer an inferior band that prances around on stage to an accomplished band that doesn’t. A year later in Hamburg, when The Beatles were about to be fired—and the club owner was yelling, “Mach schau, Beatles" (“make show”)—they finally let loose, jumping and cavorting around the stage like madmen for the rest of the night. From that day forward they were known for their spirited performances—and they returned to Liverpool as a transformed band. In this case, they had already seen the light, but it took the club owner’s threats before they felt the heat. Chalk this up to both light AND heat.
3. They embraced a unique image in 1961 featuring an unusual hair style and, later, tailored English suits. This began when art student/ photographer Astrid Kirchherr befriended the band in Hamburg in 1960 and encouraged them to adopt a more artsy, bohemian image. She gave two of them a trendy German haircut (featuring bangs) which eventually turned into the Beatles’ “look.” After Brian Epstein took over management of the group, he encouraged them to dress more upscale, which included Carnaby Street suits. This all came about by recognizing the importance of standing out from the crowd, not from getting pressure to change. Light not heat.
4. They became the world’s most innovative recording group beginning around 1965, culminating in Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band, the 1967 album that changed the game of rock record production forever and represented—according to Time Magazine—“a historic departure in the progress of music.” The Beatles began to experiment with multiple musical styles, exotic instrumentation, cutting-edge recording techniques, unusual song topics, and even new album packaging—aided and abetted by their experimentation in psychotropic drugs. Because nobody was threatening the Beatles’ hegemonic takeover of the pop charts at the time, there was no necessity for them to do any of this. But they saw an opportunity to break the rules and make musical history. Again, this was seeing the light.
There certainly were instances where The Beatles felt pressure to make specific changes, as when Lennon was forced to publicly apologize for claiming they were “more popular than Jesus,” in order to avert a mass boycott of Beatles’ records. And in their day-to-day life they were notoriously deadline-driven, given their tortuous travel and recording schedules. So they felt plenty of heat from 1963 to 1966. But their most important and long-lasting directional shifts occurred from seeing new possibilities and opportunities—which few others saw.
One could also argue that most of their key decisions arose from John Lennon’s original dream for them to be “bigger than Elvis.” Once that became a "shared vision"—and they collectively saw the light—they took the actions appropriate to that and began separating themselves from the pack.
Now to apply this to the world of work in general, business leaders are often looking to change the ways of their employees to have them be more engaged, industrious, productive, etc. So, should they try to get their employees to see the world differently or should they find ways to crank up the pressure?
Entire forests have been leveled to provide answers to this. For instance, many change theorists believe in creating a “burning platform” (an emergency or crisis) that forces individuals, teams, and organizations to abandon the status quo and try something else.
But to sidestep this debate (for now), let's just say that there’s a time and place for both light and heat.
If you’re looking for people to self-generate a change and embrace it for the long haul, there’s nothing like having them see things in a new light, frame, or context. That way a new set of actions arises spontaneously. If you don’t have the luxury of time and you need immediate compliance, the "stick"—threats, punishments, 220 volts—can also work. But it’s a short term solution that can create a heap of unintended consequences down the road.