Change Work March 2016

The more it changes...

War, climate change, religious intolerance and competition for resources: even from the perspective of a safe, western country the world seems to be a dangerous and disturbing place. And although history is full of examples of violent conflicts, we might have thought we'd grown out of this way of doing things and peaceful, democratic change was the modern norm. But now we are seeing civil wars and bloody power struggles all over the world. So to dwell on how I feel about it all, from a safe distance, when there are millions of people living and dying, caught up in those conflicts, seems a bit presumptuous.

But I believe that understanding how/why humans do what they do is always useful. So let's try to establish a few principles and see where they lead us.

Uncertainty causes us distress, at least when it's our own welfare that's uncertain. But some people are skilled at manipulating events, taking advantage of a state of flux to advance their own agendas and careers. Current examples are Jeremy Corbyn being elected leader of the Labour Party in the UK and Donald Trump leading the race for the Republican Party's presidential nomination. Neither was rated as a serious contender just a few months ago, but both have managed to disrupt the "normal" processes of their respective political systems.

These revolutions are explained by the anger and frustration of party members reaching a tipping point that neutralised the "establishment". The resulting vacuum was then filled by someone who seemed to be different.

In all fields, the status quo tends to be maintained until something unforeseen disrupts it. A famous example of this principle was Thomas Kuhn's "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" where he developed the idea of a "paradigm shift" that overturns the prevailing consensus. Perhaps we're experiencing a paradigm shift now in politics, economics and society generally. Or maybe the old order will re-establish itself eventually - to the relief of some and the disappointment of many.

Whether you fear change or welcome it depends on which end of the various "meta-program" ranges you sit. Particularly relevant meta-programs here are "Towards-Away" and "Options-Procedures".

Away motivated people take action to avoid discomfort, so they like to keep things the same. Towards motivated people strive towards exciting goals; they like to make things happen. Options people want choices and are good at developing alternatives. Procedures people are good at following set courses (they read the instructions!) and are not action-motivated.

As with all meta-programs, we are all capable of thinking at either end of the spectrum, but we tend to have strong preferences for one style.

These differences in how we respond to change are also interpreted in the Kirton Adaption-Innovation Inventory (KAI). Adaptors like to do things better by improving procedures. Innovators like new things and new ways, not because they are necessarily better, but because they are different! (So be aware, innovation isn't always a good thing!)

Evolution (or nature generally) is very hard on species that can't adapt to changes in their environment. The philosopher Eric Hoffer famously summed up how this translates into individual human development: "In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists."

Humans have the ability to learn new skills through the establishment of mental "patterns". This is the "programming" part of Neuro-Linguistic Programming. We don't have enough conscious brain-power to be aware of everything we need to do, such as breathing, maintaining balance, noticing threats whilst at the same time responding to other people and adopting appropriate body language. We have to set up "automatic" patterns that our brains can follow unconsciously, leaving the conscious mind to get on with whatever we've chosen to do. What causes us a lot of trouble is that the patterns that govern our social behaviour (in the broadest sense) can become out of date and inappropriate to changed circumstances.

Because the patterns are unconscious we don't perceive them as things we once chose to do - rather we take them to be part of "the kind of person" each of us thinks we are. If you believe that you can't change that person then you are trapped in a system of behaviours that obstruct rather than support you.

If this is a good model of how humans work, then try looking at some of the big events in the news now through that lens. Can you see people trapped in patterns of thinking and doing that they won't, or more likely can't, change?

Perhaps then the most useful skill of all is the ability to recognise that even deeply embedded behaviours and strategies can be changed - and then knowing how to change them.