5 Change Management Lessons from Mac and Cheese

Mention macaroni and cheese and images of crispy crust, gooey noodles, and lots of feel-good coziness come to mind.
04/18/2016 04:45 pm ET Updated Apr 19, 2017

Mention macaroni and cheese and images of crispy crust, gooey noodles, and lots of feel-good coziness come to mind. Thanks to some very smart folks at Kraft Foods, it will also speak to an effective change management communications strategy that CEOs and their marketing and human resources staffs should examine closely.

A year ago the company announced it would eliminate artificial dyes and preservatives in the venerable Macaroni and Cheese dinner beloved by young children, starving college students and parents who hope their kids won't finish it so they can eat the leftovers. This news rattled fans around the country who took to social media with passionate and humorous demands to "save my mac and cheese." In a world where nothing stays the same, being able to count on the blue box and its radioactive-yellow pasta was oddly comforting.

After an initial flurry, there was silence. People went on buying the blue boxes and all seemed well. And then in March of this year, the company announced they had changed the ingredients months ago--and we hadn't noticed. Sneaky but brilliant. Sales are robust and we're consuming a more natural product that still tastes good.

For those of us on the front lines of change management within our organizations, the mac and cheese makeover offers some powerful lessons:

1. Be transparent. Kraft Foods was honest and told people the change was coming and why it was coming. They even told us when it was coming. The April 2015 press release says January 2016.

2. Listen to your stakeholders. The company was making the change in response to market demands for more natural foods with fewer artificial ingredients. But they also recognized how much people liked the product as it was, and how little they would welcome a big change.

3. Move slowly. Unlike many change efforts, where a shift in policy or the elimination of a product is announced and then goes into effect immediately, Kraft Foods allowed plenty of time for the change to happen and for people to grow accustomed to the idea. Introducing the new ingredients quietly provided an opportunity for people to try the product with an open mind. No one noticed anything for months, even though an ingredients list on the box clearly stated the new formula.

4. Understand the psychology of change. The mere suggestion of change can often prompt negative reactions and feelings--even if change hasn't taken hold yet. You tell a kid they are going to get a shot and their arm hurts long before the injection. In the same way, immediately after the announcement, some took to social media to say they didn't like the taste, though the ingredients hadn't yet been adjusted.

5. Celebrate and use the wisdom of crowds. Robert Cialdini in his seminal book Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion notes that social proof--the idea that if everyone else is good with it then it must be ok--is a powerful psychological motivator. In this case, the fact that millions had already taste-tested the new mac and cheese and liked it suggests that the change, indeed, was a good thing.

All too often change--especially in a commercial environment--isn't communicated well. The fallout can be catastrophic and memorable (remember New Coke?). The mac and cheese makeover offers some great insights on how to do change right. Making change more comfortable should be the goal. And what better way to demonstrate that than with the ultimate comfort food?