Are People Really Afraid Of Change?

When we talk of innovation, there’s a common perception that people aren’t particularly fond of change.  They’ll strive to protect the status quo as much as humanly possible.  Indeed, various studies have suggested that we’re hard wired to follow the herd whenever we can.

“The result is that groups evolve to be unresponsive to changes in their environment and spend too much time copying one another, and not making their own decisions,“ the researchers say.

A second study, from researchers at the University of British Columbia then delved into the issue of conformity some more, and found further evidence that it’s actually surprisingly common.

“People are conformist – and that’s a good thing for cultural evolution,” the authors say. “By being conformist, we copy the things that are popular in the world. And those things are often good and useful.”

They use an example of disease prevention and suggest that whilst most people don’t understand the mechanics of how germs work, they know that they should wash their hands after going to the toilet.

Conformist sheep

All of which surely supports the argument that people hate change, right?  Perhaps, but if we permit ourselves to consider the alternative, we might conclude that people are actually really good at change.  Indeed, humanity has come to be defined by its ability to change and adapt to circumstances.

London Business School’s Dan Cable argues that this adaptability is an inherent skill that is hard coded into our very being.  When our prefrontal cortex, which dreams up potential futures, works with what he refers to as our seeking system, it creates a being that is designed to innovate and to change.  In that sense we are unique among the animal kingdom.

He goes on to suggest that far from being fundamentally opposed to change, our workplaces have conditioned us to bury them.  If we can organize ourselves in such a way that these instincts are not squashed, we can reinvigorate the innovative impulses of our workforce.

In a longer term he is undoubtedly right, but in the short-term, that same biological make-up renders many of us impervious to change.  It’s a dichotomy that is chronicled magnificently by Michael Lewis in first Moneyball and then The Undoing Project, where he talks about the tremendous resistance to a data-driven approach to sport, until such time as the tipping point is reached and soon every team in every sport in the world is using data to guide their work.

The very language used to describe this transition from the ‘valley of death’ to ‘crossing the chasm’ and reaching your ‘tipping point’ are familiar enough to us that they’ve entered the management lexicon, yet despite this familiarity we seem to no better at creating a culture where change and adaptability are the norms.

After all, the latest digital transformation report by MIT Sloan and Deloitte found that the number of organizations who are at an advanced stage of digital transformation efforts remains very low, and indeed barely higher than the frankly hopeless 3% who said they were at such a stage in a similar report last year by SAP.

Indeed, in the discussions I’ve had with digital people at a range of multinational companies this year, most have been only too glad to hear that their peers are as slow out of the blocks as they are.  If change is as natural to us as Cable suggests, there is precious little evidence of it.

I would love to hear your own experiences though.  Is it any better in your own organization?

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