Before Martin Luther King had a dream, E.D. Nixon had a plan. It was a good plan, too. Nixon thought he could make huge strides in the struggle for racial equality in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama by orchestrating a boycott of the city bus system–both a bastion of segregation and a huge money-maker for the city.
He had a sound strategy and a thorough plan. But it was proving difficult to get the masses of African-American bus riders to go along with the change plan, and actually stop riding the buses. Just like countless team leaders and project managers in today’s organizations, Nixon had all the dominoes lined up, but he couldn’t get them to start falling.
Then one morning in the early spring of 1955, a courageous young woman took a seat on a city bus. After the bus filled up, the driver ordered her to move so that a white woman could take her seat. When she refused, the irritated bus driver then flagged down two police officers who grabbed the young lady and hauled her off to jail. And the rest of the story is history.
Today, everyone knows that Rosa Parks’ decision to stay seated on that bus inspired a domino effect of change that tore down the walls of racial segregation in America.There is just one problem with that story.
Rosa Parks wasn’t there.
THE REST OF THE ROSA PARKS STORY
In fact, Rosa Parks was at home getting ready for work the day that the first African American woman openly defied segregation on an Alabama bus. That young woman was a 15-year old high school student named Claudette Colvin. A month after Ms. Colvin defied the unjust law, an 18-year old woman named Aurelia Browder followed suit. Then came Susie McDonald, who was followed by Jeanette Reese, and then Mary Louise Smith. Finally on December 1, 1955–exactly 60 years ago this week–a full nine months after Claudette Colvin’s brave act, Rosa Parks became the sixth African-American woman in Montgomery to take a rebellious stand (or sit, as it were).
Rosa Parks made the exact same decision in the same city in the same year in the same political climate. So why is it that Rosa Parks’s defiant decision inspired others to change and the others did not?
ROSA PARKS WAS A BLACK DIAMOND
In a classic 1949 study, the psychologists Jerome Brunner and Leo Postman (both then at Harvard University) sat people down at a table and showed them playing cards one at a time. Most of the cards were just like you and I would expect them to be. Some were red. Some were black. Some had numbers, while others had pictures of cartoon royalty. Some of them had images of black clubs or black spades, and others revealed pictures of red diamonds or red hearts.
But every now and then the researchers pulled up specially made trick cards. They showed the participants a misfit card like a queen of diamonds that was black instead of red. To the researcher’s astonishment, participants responded with what Brunner and Postman described as “acute personal stress.” One participant exclaimed “I can’t make the suit out whatever it is. It didn’t even look like a card that time. I don’t know what color it is now or whether it’s a spade or a heart. I’m not even sure what a spade looks like. My God!” The black queen of diamonds–insignificant as it was–instantly focused their attention on the unexpected change.
Rosa parks was a black diamond.
People in 1950s Montgomery expected teenagers and rabble-rousing activists to rebel against authority, just like they expected red playing cards to be diamonds or hearts. But when those same people heard about a quiet, dignified, middle-aged lady calmly, yet resolutely disobeying a direct order from a police officer, it triggered the same emotional reaction Bruner and Postman triggered in their playing cards study.
So what should aspiring change leaders in an organization do since arranging for a quiet, dignified lady to get hauled off to jail in handcuffs like a common criminal is probably a slight violation of an HR policy?
DECISIONS ARE BLACK DIAMONDS
In short, make a decision. The latin root of the word “decide” means to kill or to cut. (Think: homicide, suicide, genocide). In a series of field studies we found that when managers make a decision to kill, cut off, reduce, or postpone some project or objective that everyone knows is important, it acts like a black diamond in the minds of their team members.
Employees expect their bosses to define new goals and objectives every few months or every year in the same way as they expect teenagers to rebel against authority. So when a manager announces a new plan with new goals and objectives, it doesn’t signal that anything has truly changed–regardless of whether she makes that announcement once, twice, or five separate times. It’s just what managers do–they plan the work and work the plan. Nothing new to see here.
But a decision is different. For example, to change his department’s focus to making critical improvements in the Supply Chain, one manufacturing manager put a Quality Assurance initiative on hold. An IT manager sacrificed a layer of data security on a web portal in order to inspire his peers to focus more on the customer experience. A sales executive triggered a change in her salespeople by tweaking her team’s incentive structure so that selling the old flagship product would be less valuable than selling the new offering.
The simple truth is that change happens when decisions happen. Change stalls when decisions don’t. If you want to make that first domino fall, make a decision.