On the brick road in the community where I live, there is a sign that shows your speed with large luminous numbers. When you are not speeding, you get a thumbs up in green. Only... when you drive too fast, it gives you your speed... also in green. Only after a few times did I realize that something was not quite right, at least according to the conventions. The measurement was correct, only the green light for a speeding ticket felt abnormal and caused hesitation. I had to deal with the interference effect.
This has everything to do with human memory. A phenomenon where the mental processing of information becomes slower and less accurate due to competing mental processes. In the process, some memories interfere with the recall of other memories. In this article I explore the interference effect from the perspective of organizational change.
When the information is congruent, then the interpretation and (re)action will be optimal. If it is not, as in the image on the left, then it slows down the intended response, because extra time is needed to process it. The more similar memories are, the more likely interference will occur.
The main types of interference are proactive and retroactive interference.
- Proactive interference: existing memories interfere with learning or retrieval of new memories. Older memories are more often anchored more in our long-term memory. Therefore, when things change, it is often difficult to adapt and process the new information.
- Retroactive interference: learning interferes with existing memories or new memories interfere with the retrieval of old memories, making them harder to remember. Think of remembering a new phone number, after a while you won’t remember the old number. This occurs because you stop using the old information and repeat the new information frequently.
I play tennis and padel. Tennis I have been playing since I was eight years old. Padel since almost two years. In the beginning I suffered from proactive interference and played tennis on the padel court. By practicing a lot, taking lessons and watching YouTube videos about padel, the interference decreased. During the winter, we were only allowed to play sports outside due to corona. As a result, I only played padel and no longer played tennis. Since a few weeks the summer courts are open again and I went back to play tennis. Now the retroactive interference effect played there, but only for a while. The first fifteen minutes were back to adjusting (no playing padel on the tennis court), but the anchored strokes and technique from years of playing the game quickly came back up. Which probably means that the deeper and longer a memory or habit is embedded, the harder it is to replace it with another. Of course, this does have implications for organizational change.
What does this mean for organizational change?
In change processes you are either dealing with something completely new, starting from scratch (like basketball and tennis or e.g. a new process) or a change to something similar to the previous (like padel and tennis or e.g. replacing software). In most cases, organizational change belongs to the second kind and thus there is a basis of comparison or old memory. The longer the old situation has been in place, the more difficult the change process will be.
So we know that the interference effect can cause old memories to be remembered better than new ones (proactive interference) and that new memories can interfere with old memories after repetition (retroactive interference).
So if we want people to absorb new information and forget old ones, we will have to make the information and change clear, replace the old memories with the new ones and repeat this very regularly. On the other hand, it is best to look for the old information that is still relevant in the change and build on it, because it is already embedded in the memory.
This means that it is best to look closely at a change first and assess what is really new for people and what builds on what is already there.
What are strategies for dealing with the interference effect?
- Avoid the effect: by not creating conflicting mental processes in the design of your change. Make sure information (old and new) is clear and congruent so people understand it immediately.
- Minimizing the effect: through ‘excessive learning’ or repeating new information often, you ensure that old memories become less significant. You can reinforce this by using different information channels (video, blogs, computer, workshops, etc). Removing old information or making practices inaccessible can also help.
- Using the effect: make use of the fact that old memories are anchored, when relevant, and reinforce the memory and recognizability (which can reduce fear of change). The technique ‘Advance Organizer’ from instructional design can help with this.
This is an instructional technique that helps people understand new information based on what they already know. They are small pieces of information presented before the new information is shared that help people understand the new information. There are two types of advance organizers:
- the descriptive: you use this when the audience has little or no knowledge similar to the information being shared. Give the broad picture and explain where the change is coming from, what exactly it entails. In the case of a new process (e.g. social media at the time social media emerged) you will explain exactly what social media is and what it is for.
- the comparative: you use this when people have existing knowledge that is similar to the information being presented. In this case, show the differences between the old and the new. Compare and contrast elements of the two solutions. If you are replacing one software with another, or a policy with a new policy (such as the changing corona measures), make it very clear what is still valid, what is no longer valid, and what is new. The Stop-Start-Continue exercise (what stops, what is started and what do we do next) can support you in this.
The interference effect is mental hindrance and can keep us from performing at the highest level and making a change successful. By consciously considering what you want to change and analyzing the context and experience of your target group, you can reduce the mental obstacles people encounter in change through all kinds of interventions. Since there is not much research on this topic yet, it comes down to experimenting and learning what works for your organization. And often it is common sense, you just have to think about it at the beginning of the change.