Change That Would Give John Kotter a Headache

Think it is hard leading an organizational change?  Even John Kotter and his community of penguins did not have to deal with  getting an entire country to change?

No, I am not talking about President Obama and health care reform.  This is much more direct, manageable and simple, but clearly not easy.  The government of the small island nation of Samoa has decided that they should switch the side of the road on which islanders drive from right to left.  This is a radical move that only two other countries have taken on in modern history (Sweden and Nigeria).  In each case, it was decided for reasons that make rational good sense; however, that does not make the change easy.

Despite clear explanations, signage and publicity everywhere and even a practice driving course, the amount of opposition that the change has engendered is enormous.  And of course, the reasons to fight the change make equally rational good sense.  The issue here for leaders of change is that rationality simply will not cut it.  The emotional load that that is evoked when people must face the pain and expense of changing the status-quo is not rational and will not be quelled with logic or good sense.

The primary reasons supporting the change are to make it easier for lower income Samoans to be able to get cars by bringing the country into step with their closest neighbors, Australia and New Zealand (where many Samoans live and work).  But those who already own left-hand drive cars do not want to shoulder the expense, including commercial firms such as bus fleets and car rental companies.  So those who benefit least from the change are those least invested in the status quo, making the lines of resistance clear.

And a laissez-faire approach to the change will only add to the resistance.  Never-mind the economic arguments on either side.  When accident and injury rates skyrocket as they no doubt will when the change becomes official on September 7th, the commitment to change will be tested by noise from both sides.  And there is likely no such thing as sufficient communication and change management to ensure that everyone is ready.

A leader who believes that a change like this will be an easy, rational process is in for very challenging times.  Even in a culture as laid back as Samoa (where the dress for an interview with the Prime Minister is open shirt and flip flops- even for the Prime Minister), passions of resistance can run very high.  But then, the hardest thing of all might be to find an emotional argument strong enough to appeal to those who are happy with the current arrangement and do not want to see any change.

Hmmm, maybe it is not so different from the health care debate after all!