Why Do Humans Fight Change?
Humans are absolutely useless at handling change. We adapt – eventually – but we have a tendency to fight it every step of the way. History is littered with examples of abrupt “extinctions” when humans have failed to read the writing on the wall. From the Fall of the Roman Empire to the demise of Blockbuster Video, we’re just not good at letting go of the familiar even when all the signals point to dramatic change charging right at us.
It’s not our fault!
It’s not entirely a fault of our own making. Stanford neuroscientist David Eagleman caught our attention in a recent radio interview on NPR. He explained that, from a neuroscience perspective, humans take in information from our environment and use it to construct a mental model of the world that is predictive. The ability to predict is essential to survival - the more reliable, the more likely we are to survive. Natural selection has presumably taken care of those who built flawed or incomplete models.
The (Human) Bug in the System
In business, change has such a reputation for being difficult that an entire industry blossomed around the rather quixotic notion of “change management.” We must confess to having eyed this particular phenomenon rather warily from the outset. Systems theory holds that any system involving a human is inherently complex and ultimately unknowable. Appreciating that change is, at its core, an internal, human process there is a mix of naivete and arrogance in the belief that it can be “managed.”
We find ourselves today in a massively disrupted environment. Our past experience, the information we used to build our predictive model, is proving unreliable and cannot be counted on for survival. Adding to the challenge, most of us are not even aware that we have an outdated model as our guide, that it is time to question underlying assumptions and long-held beliefs.
There are no neat charts and graphs to help us “manage” our way out of the situation. There is however, a way to map a clear path forward.
Eagleman proposes that we construct a new, more accurate and intentional model of the world. He also acknowledges that this is not possible from a position of anxiety and fear about the future. We must address immediate and urgent needs in order to create the space we need to plan ahead. With this in mind, our consulting work is framed around two distinct stages: stabilize, then strategize.
First, appreciate the obvious. As we seek to adapt to our new circumstances, survival is front and center. Eagleman correlates our capacity to form new models with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. When our survival is at stake physiological needs, like the need to secure shelter and nourishment, limit us to near-term considerations (days, weeks and months). For organizations, the same hierarchy holds true. What needs to happen to create a stable short-term platform from which we can begin to think more strategically? We need to buy time.
Simply put, until we have a roof over our head and a secure food source we have no capacity for long-term planning.
To build a stable platform we begin by scanning externally:
- What patterns are we seeing?
- What forces are driving change?
- How is change showing up in this moment?
- What are the near-term opportunities we can pursue to address our near-term needs?
Answering these questions allows us to build and execute a short-term action plan and assign accountability. Communicating this plan to the organization reassures employees and provides opportunity to engage forward thinkers in the harder work to come.
From this stable and, for the time being, secure platform, it is possible to move beyond immediate needs to fulfilling desires and future possibility. With basic needs satisfied, we have the capacity to think two to five years into the future and begin the work of understanding the potential our organization can fill in the world as it is becoming.
At first, this is internal work. It begins with constructing a new, more accurate and reliably predictive mental model of the world. To do that, we have to autopsy our long-held beliefs and assumptions. It’s cathartic and exciting work that can point to possibilities and opportunities no one else has yet identified.
- Make a list of five commonly held assumptions about your business. Imagine that each one has been shattered – upend it, do the opposite. Explore the insight reflected in the shards of the shattered model and the blue sky thinking that ensues.
- Use applied design thinking to test emergent understandings. Create scenarios. How many ways might an organization reinvent itself to thrive in this new landscape?
- Use these scenarios to test understanding and clarify/improve the new model through iteration to illuminate potential courses of action. Remain vigilant for the vestiges of old thinking that inevitably surface during this process.
Under Construction – Coming Soon…
With a new mental model of the world under construction, new opportunities and possibilities present themselves. Leadership teams that undertake this work together create a powerful alignment behind a shared vision that will propel the organization to a newfound relevancy and purpose.
The future belongs to those who see the world as it is becoming. Those who cling to the familiar or clutch at nostalgia will be obituaries in yesterday’s newspaper (what’s a newspaper?)
On the map of great disruption, hope and imagination point to true north while nostalgia and conventional wisdom lead directly to the Bermuda Triangle.