People are adaptable, so why is organizational change so hard?

August 9, 2013

The human being is a midsize omnivorous mammal that has invested large amounts of evolutionary energy developing a particularly large and complex brain. This brain enables us to scan our world in both simple and sophisticated ways and to fashion responses to it. We can work in the concrete and the abstract, and we can construct complex social systems that allow us to gain the power born of large, coordinated groupings or organizations. We study and experiment and learn in no small part so that we can alter our behavior and adjust to new circumstances. In fact, much of our conscious mind apparently exists to perceive and to help us manage social reality. All these qualities enable us to adapt proactively to our environment. No, we are not the equal of cockroaches or retroviruses in this regard, but any creature that can prosper in tropical, temperate, and frigid climates, in arid environs, and in land dominated by water surely deserves the description “adaptable”.  Motivational and behavioral theorists might differ on various counts, but virtually everyone agrees that human beings try to impact their environment and make it work for them. Even the smallest of children demonstrate this tendency to reach out (literally) and shape their world.  Adapting and overcoming are central parts of who and what we are.

Why, then, is organizational change so difficult for such an adaptable being? Why do leaders fret so much about it and management gurus roll out new theories, seemingly on the hour, about how to accomplish it?

Partly because we forget. We forget that we are, in fact, big-brained mammals attending to our environment, in order to make it work for us. We need to remember that we are an amazingly adaptable creature. We attend and respond to our environment. Hence change leaders need to focus on creating the environment, local-look up from your desk kind of environment, that will foster the type of change, the type of adaptation sought.

Future newsletter articles will expand on the overall points made here. (For more on why change initiatives fail and how to succeed, see the Introduction available at Leading Successful Change. Click on the “About the Book” tab and then go to the bottom right hand corner of the page that comes into view.)