Change – How We Resist It!

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!

11 Replies to “Change – How We Resist It!”

  1. Anyone will tell you change is more difficult for the old than the young, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. Greenfield sites also tend to have a much younger workforce than old established organisations. Could this be the reason change of any real significance is rare in a large established corporation?

    I personally don’t agree with this. It seems to me that the more you experience change the easier it is and the older generation by their lifestyle and work situation just have less of it. Learning new things and ways is all that change is and science now tells us that our brains are just as capable of this at any age, but like the rest of our body if we don’t use it we loose it (the ability to change).

    The solution therefore seems to be, keep learning and keep changing all the time. Reject the idea, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. Change for change sake is a good thing and good organisations will create change even when it is not directly needed so that they retain the ability to change when it is really essential.

  2. It seems that any significant new development in the world comes from small organisations run by young people. No one has explained to them yet that it can’t be done and they have nothing to lose so they just do it. I read some time back that Bill Gates made the statement that he was not afraid of Apple or Oracle, it was some kid in a garage with a completely new idea that was the biggest threat to his mega-corporation.

    A challenge for established corporations is therefore how to create an environment that encourages people to challenge the status quo, be creative and deliver the killer products of the future. Most of our organisations seem to put vast amounts of energy into telling us what can’t be done. The legal, finance, procurement, health and safety and environment departments are the ring leaders of anti-change. Don’t get me wrong I am not against protecting our people or our environment but these departments should be assisting and encouraging organisations to do things right and not telling us it can’t be done which too often seems to be the case. Rules are made to be challenged and changed.

  3. Greg says “change for change sake is a good thing”. I put that one up there with “life wasn’t meant to be easy” or “read my lips, no new taxes”!
    This old dog isn’t anti-change but I’m heartily sick of it being used as a tool for avoiding the consequences of the last change process.
    Let’s have a decade where we bed some things down and see if they work before we race headlong onto the next new you beaut idea or gadget.

  4. For indeed our consciousness does not create itself – it wells up from unknown depths. In childhood it awakens gradually, and all through life it wakes each morning out of the depths of sleep from an unconscious condition. It is like a child that is born daily out of the primordial womb of the unconscious.
    C.G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Glossary

  5. Ted,

    Whilst I’m in a challenging mood, I’d also argue with your statement that our brains seem ill equipped to handle change. Presuming you mean our minds and thinking processes, I disagree.
    Take as an example the number of technological changes that we have had to master over the last 40 years or so. As I left school, the logarithm tables gave way to the slide rule and then a few years later an electronic calculator followed by computers which are now upgraded almost continuously. Mine’s not the greatest mind going around but with a bit of effort it seems to cope.
    I’d also challenge the premise of your article that human beings resist change. And that is why I disagree with Greg’s statement. I think our current civilisation is too quick to discard the old in the headlong rush to embrace the new.
    It was sobering for me a couple of years ago to travel to Italy and find that there are buildings in current use whose foundations were built by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago. If only all change could be so accommodating, to balance the past with the present to create a better future.
    But enough from me it’s time to head back to the cave!

  6. It seems to me there is some pattern here that indicates age is the factor and not mindset.
    One of my first roles after uni was in Canberra -delivering training on a very new Legal Information system.
    My observations were this….some of the older lawyers hated it and didn’t want to change, and some were keenly excited and loved it, learned and embraced it. Some of the new young lawyers( young bulls) hated it, knew it all, were rude and thought they knew it all, and this new innovation was confusing them -who had just learned their craft. Others, excitedly embraced the new technology as a process to give them advantage and speedy research.
    So, there are young old bulls, and old young bulls ! I want to be a young old bull one day !

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