Some years ago, I remember reading how in the Napoleonic Wars the British Government created a position for someone to man a bonfire on the cliffs of Dover. His job was to light the bonfire if he saw the French fleet approaching so that the British might prepare for an attempt at invasion. Apparently that job was only abolished sometime in the 1940’s.
That’s typical of the behaviour of organisations. We institute a practice, generally for very good reasons, and then we continue the practice long after the reasons for doing so have disappeared because ‘that’s just the way we do things around here’.
Or consider this example. Boom gates on railway level crossings were originally illuminated with hurricane lights. The lights were affixed to the boom via a swivel so that when the boom was raised the lamp would continue to hang perpendicular and not spill the fuel. When these were first electrified many of the electric lights were attached to the swivel even though it was no longer required.
We get stuck in our mindsets, which become straitjackets for our thinking. A colleague told me about a visit he had to one workplace with a difficult industrial history. Seeing an employee having a cigarette outside the workshop, he stopped and attempted to make conversation.
“Are you having a good day?” he ventured.
The man scowled. “Of course not – I’m at work aren’t I. My father told me he never enjoyed one single day at work in his whole life! My experience to date has been no better and I hold out no prospect of ever enjoying myself at work.”
When I was appointed to manage Stanwell Power Station my management team and I put in a concerted effort using the technology available to minimise shiftwork. We looked at some fundamental work redesign. Over the years as power stations became more and more automated there was less work required to be carried out on shift. However instead of reducing the numbers of shift workers, and risk industrial disputation, successive managements had tried to find more tasks for them to gainfully fill their hours. After a period of time, these “fill-in” tasks came to be accepted as necessarily done by shift workers. We faced a lot of opposition when we redesigned the work to have those tasks carried out by day workers.
Again there was another mindset to challenge. Over the years unions had successfully argued that shift work is debilitating and consequently those working shifts should be generously compensated. Whilst I believe there should be additional compensation for people working unsocial hours, the real solution seemed to me not paying high rates (which often attracted people to shift work for all the wrong reasons) but minimising employees requirement to work shift work. My solution was not particularly well-received by the unions!
Some commentators suggest that 90% of organisational change interventions fail to meet their goals. Over the years, when I was looking for innovative workplace practices, it became apparent to me that the most likely places to find them were “greenfields” sites where there was no concern about maintaining vested interests, or organisations in imminent danger of commercial failure. Change seems so difficult that most organisations can only manage minor changes unless their very existence is at stake.
But such reluctance to change is not just the domain of the collective, it is very true at the individual level as well. I read somewhere recently ( I can’t recall the source) that even those whose lives are threatened by a combination of ill-health and bad lifestyle choices find it difficult to change their personal habits to give them prospects of longer lives. In fact only one in nine of such people manage to make the necessary changes.
If you ponder the fact that most human behaviour depends on behavioural subroutines that we have developed due to our biological history and our socialisation, that we draw on stimulated by environmental cues that require our response, it becomes easier to understand why behavioural change is so difficult. We don’t just choose to behave the way we do and nor is it possible that we should just choose to behave differently if our behaviour is not helpful (as in the case above). Mostly behavioural change occurs when we learn a new behaviour to displace an old one. That is not easy. A behaviour that we have acted out for many years (and has probably been rewarded) is difficult to jettison.
I suppose our prehistory has not disposed us well for change. If we look at the “progress” of mankind, from the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly three million years. From the first iron to the hydrogen bomb took merely three thousand years. We are beset with far more change than evolutionary processes equipped us for.
Our brain structure shows the difficulty we have in adapting to the modern world. Our ancestors were for millennia hunters and gatherers. Having to eke out a living from the forests and the plains, it was a useful adaptation to have an instinctual fear of spiders and snakes. Unfortunately most of us are still imbued with those instinctual fears, yet few of us know of anyone who has ever been killed by a spider or a snake. It would be far more advantageous in today’s world to have an instinctual fear of speeding motor vehicles or electric power sockets. But these threats are so recent in evolutionary time that we have yet to acquire such instincts.
Our brains therefore seem ill-equipped to handle change. Fortunately, because of our ability to communicate and our emergent social structures we don’t need to rely on our brains evolving to cope with change, we rely on our culture to promote necessary change. But we still are in a bind. Whilst change by evolutionary processes might take millennia, cultural change is much quicker. However, it too is greatly resisted and is not as rapid as most managers and leaders imagine. I have never seen a change intervention of any consequence properly embedded in an organisation in less than five years. (Of course the larger and more traditional organisations have the most inertia). By which times managers and boards start to despair and come to the conclusion that “the change is not working”. And so the intervention is aborted and often replaced by another which will also be abandoned before too long. And the reactionaries smile and say, “We’ve seen it all before – another flavour of the month,” and go about business the way they always have even if inappropriate, unproductive and unprofitable!