Masters of adaption: Understanding human change

Do people change? The question is an old one but it is quite relevant in our age: With lots of organisations going through some kind of change project or innovation initiative, managers and consultants want to know: “Will our people change (their behaviour)?” There is no correct answer because the question itself is wrong – it implies that it’s possible for people not to change.

Every moment we are subject to countless external and internal impulses bombarding us: Stimuli we pick up with our senses, conscious and unconscious thoughts running through our brains and a myriad of biochemical/bioelectrical signals racing up and down every inch of our bodies – bodies that replace millions of their own cells every day.
Humans are masters of adaption, extraordinarily capable of dealing with change: No two moments in our existence are the same and yet we go through life creating order, systems and processes naturally – just think about the structures of your family/circle of friends, your daily routines and the skills you have acquired over time.

The question “Will people change?” is pointless because we’re literally unable of not changing – our entire existence is a constant flow of change inside and around us. Our life basically works according to a single algorithm, processed over and over again in infinite simultaneous instances:

Impulse => Reaction

But that doesn’t make it simple: If you expose your employees or co-workers to new stimuli, they will react to them – but they will react to them in the context of their own internal and external system. This means it’s pointless to ponder a person’s reaction to a single measure – that measure works as an irritant, upsetting the entire system the person lives in and the person will then react, adapting to the new state of the system. Let me give you an example:

  • If you walk through your office space and hand every person an orange as a token of appreciation, how will they react?

This is a relatively simple action but the answer is impossible to know: Every one of your colleagues is tied up in something different, they all came to work in a different mood this very morning and they all have different predispositions for oranges. Some will light up and thank you for the gesture, others will find the disturbance unpleasant and some will just be confused. Now let’s change the irritant to something more complex:

  • If you introduce a new workflow to improve people’s productivity, how will they react?

If reactions to oranges were unknown beforehand, reactions to a new workflow are unknowable: They are absolutely impossible to anticipate because both the measure, the people affected and the configurations of their individual/shared systems are much too complex.

So we need to expand the algorithm from before:

Impulse => Change to System State => Reaction

The lesson here is: No matter what you expose your co-workers to, their reaction will be governed by the resulting changes to their entire internal/external system. This means that if you’re aiming for a certain outcome, you must abandon the idea of prescribed change – because static measures lead to unforeseeable results.

To achieve a certain result you need to apply a highly dynamical, organic change that is created and adapted autonomously by those affected, in pursuit of the desired outcome.
You need to fill people with enthusiasm for the purpose you want them to share with you (e. g. higher productivity) and let them design the measures to attain this goal (e. g. new workflows) in a way that aligns with their individual systems. Additionally, this also makes sense because those affected by the change probably have more expertise about the subject matter than you, anyway.

So focus on what’s important (the outcome), treat your colleagues as the experts they are (that’s why they were hired, right?) and avoid the temptation to impose your personal favourite practices on others:

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

Best of luck in finding your path!

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