What'll It Cost Me?

When public employees ask the question "what is in it for me," they are evaluating what the change requires from them. Russ Linden provides insights in to how to manage the process of change.
April 9, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Russ Linden  |  Contributor
A management consultant, educator and author

Over the past few months I've spent time with managers in two separate organizations: a local government human services department and a state transportation agency. While these organizations differ in many ways, they have one thing in common--their environment is forcing them to change.

My conversations with these managers included questions common to most discussions of change: What's driving the need to change? What are the benefits of making this change? What are the costs of not changing? What will success look like? How will we keep everyone informed? What are the leaders' roles in this effort? What's our game plan? How do we answer the "WIIFM?" (what's in it for me?) question that our employees are no doubt asking?

These aren't new questions, but they were necessary to answer and they helped us make some progress. With each group I could sense that some managers were holding back. They weren't negative people, and some of them had led changes in their own units, but there was a reluctance that I couldn't identify.

We broke the logjam in one of these discussions when one brave soul suggested, "Russ, maybe it's time we addressed the 'WICM?' question." That was a new acronym for me, so I asked for clarification. The response was, "You know, the 'WICM?' question, 'What'll it cost me?'" At that point, everyone in the group started nodding, some smiled widely, and the entire conversation became much more energetic, open, and honest. I vowed to commit the "WICM?" question to my mental hard drive.

Understanding the Power of the WICM? Question

Like the "WIIFM?" question, asking "what'll it cost me?" may sound self centered. Or it may simply be a request for information. Either way, "WICM?" is a necessary and human question. The person who raised it works with her colleagues in a program that is trying to forge partnerships with other similar programs. While everyone in this group saw many benefits to their program and their clients if they learned the skills needed for effective partnering, they each had concerns about the possible costs of making this change. Their "WICMs" (as they perceived it) included: loss of autonomy, huge amount of time needed to develop the partnerships, concern that the exchange with their partners wouldn't be reciprocal, worries over loss of some control, less time to supervise their staff, concern that some of their partners "don't play nicely," and the loss of professional identity.

These are powerful concerns, and no amount of team building, motivational speeches by senior leaders and offers of incentives were going to wish them away. This group wasn't going to get past their doubts until we addressed their "WICM?"s directly.

We Can't Wish the "WICM?" Away

Some change-oriented leaders and entrepreneurial types may be put off by this column, perhaps thinking that it's a waste of time to address people's "WICM?" question when change is necessary. But most people who have studied change understand that we can't (and shouldn't) avoid this conversation.

Peter Drucker, often called the "father of modern management," notes that the "WICM?" question is even asked by the most change-oriented people. In his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker discusses the common belief that innovators are great risk takers, and calls it a monumental myth: "I [...] know a good many successful innovators and entrepreneurs. Not one of them has a 'propensity for risk-taking'" (p.139). Drucker points out that these change agents work hard to identify and reduce risks as they contemplate new initiatives. To use our term, they raise the "WICM?" question early, define the possible costs, and look for ways to confine risks.

Managers and leaders intent on fostering change don't need to spend months dwelling on the potential costs and risks of a proposed change nor do they need to pamper their staff and try to shield them from the hard facts. If a change is necessary, it's critical to be up front about it and explain why (including the costs of not changing). The change will go far better if employees are invited to be open about their concerns, if they can identify possible costs, and if they can participate in a discussion of how to address those costs.

The key lesson for change leaders is this: Whether you invite people to discuss the "WICM?" question or not, they'll be talking about it among themselves. That isn't "resisting change," that's just human. By bringing up the question yourself, and creating a safe environment to discuss it, you'll gain credibility. And when you address that question with your team, the change effort will gain supporters.

This isn't about being "soft," it's about being smart ... and effective.