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Why "What's In It For Me" Is Wrong For Business Transformation

I’ve seen or heard it referred to dozens of times and even succumbed to the false notion myself. It’s known as WIIFM or “What’s in it for Me”. It may have rightly applied in sales and marketing to encourage thinking from the customer’s perspective but in business transformation and change management, it may be one of the most wrong-headed ideas around. It’s not just sort of wrong. It’s all wrong.

But before we get to that, let’s start with two questions. First, what’s the purpose of your business? And by that I don’t mean making money. The purpose of your business isn’t to make money. As Peter Drucker once said, “Profit is not the purpose of business, but rather the test of its validity.”

And the second question is this: “Does the purpose of your business engage your employees?” That’s a critical question when you consider 70% of employees in the workplace are disengaged or actively disengaged (i.e., working against you).

The answers to these two questions are critically important because purpose should drive your change effort, not WIIFM.

Here’s why. A few years ago, I was helping a global business client develop a business case for a strategic initiative related to new product development (NPD). Simultaneous with the work I was doing, they had another NPD initiative that required massive change in the processes and daily practices of most everyone from concept to commercialization.

They had built a business proposition complete with an attractive ROI, gone to great lengths to make sure all the senior leadership involved was aligned with the project, purchased a well-known Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system, and hired one of the leading implementation and change management consulting firms in the world to make it all happen. What could go wrong?

Well, things went wrong. I had an interview with a concept designer about my project but when we were done he talked about all the negative consequences he had experienced with the PLM initiative. He said the business reason for doing it seemed like the wrong focus (reduce costs instead of improve innovation) and the training was a waste of time (2 days to get less than 2 hours of relevant material). Besides that, it added another step to his process (he had to navigate through several screens in the PLM system to attach a finished copy of his concept), which had dubious value to anyone since it was entirely after the fact; the concept had already been approved and he had moved on.

And this is where the wrong thinking about change management came in. The typical response for this situation is, “we have to figure out what’s in it for them” to get employees to embrace change.

That always seems so right, doesn’t it. Figure out what’s in it for the employee and they’ll be motivated to adopt the required changes and everyone’s happy.

But “What’s In It For Me” doesn’t work. To determine the WIIFM for the designer would require sitting down with him and asking questions to get at his internal motivation. If they had done this, they would have found out this designer was motivated to produce design concepts that would land him a trip to trade shows where he might be asked to autograph his concepts for adoring fans.

What good would it do to uncover this WIIFM? Or any other for that matter? Does anyone think the business is in a position to act on an employee’s WIIFM?

And then there’s another problem. Suppose the business did go about uncovering the WIIFM for employees. There were thousands of employees involved in the PLM process. How would any business uncover and act on thousands of WIIFMs?

WIIFM just doesn’t work. Employees who pursue their own purpose, or WIIFM, at work will always fight change because you’re messing with their personal purpose for doing the work… duh. And wouldn’t someone who’s pursuing his or her own purpose instead of the purpose of the business be the very definition of “disengaged”? And won’t your transformation effort actually make them into “actively disengaged” employees working against you?

WIIFM is just wrong-headed. Instead, businesses and transformation efforts need to be purpose-driven. The purpose of the business needs to be greater than the individual motivational pursuits of the employees. For example, the purpose of International Justice Mission is to “Rescue Thousands. Protect Millions. Prove That Justice For The Poor Is Possible”. Do you think they’d get much resistance if they wanted to implement a change that would save more children from slavery?

If that example is too lofty for you, consider purpose-driven companies like Southwest Airlines or Google or Apple or Walmart. According to Jim Collins in his book Built to Last, purpose-driven companies out perform the general market 15:1 and peer companies 6:1.

Research indicates over 90% of CEOs are in some size, phase, or type of transformation. And with a change management industry that espouses “What’s In It For Me”, is it any wonder 70%-80% of those transformation efforts fail?

Purpose pays dividends. Purpose replaces WIIFM. Let your transformation efforts, and employees, be purpose-driven.

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