Change is a learnable skill

01 June 2018

Two people practicing tai chi

A while ago, there was an article that stated that the majority of CSR programmes fail to meet their objectives. That shouldn’t be a huge surprise. It has been a received wisdom for many years that 70% of change programmes generally fail, so why would CSR-focused change programmes be different? 

And if you look anywhere where we, as human beings, try to create and - more importantly - sustain change, we seem to fail more often than we succeed. Ask the majority of people that ever went on a diet, or tried to quit drinking so much, or smoking or whatever. So we come to the conclusion that change is hard, and maybe that luck is heavily involved in success or failure.

But we still want to change the world (and ourselves). We’re surrounded by important problems, and we know what needs to be done about them. We take it as read that we should play our part, even if it’s only a small one.

The fact is that change is not as hard as you think, and success is achievable.

After all, as noted previously, against a large range of metrics the world is getting better, not worse. We have halved absolute poverty. More education. Higher literacy. These real and substantial improvements have come around from large numbers of people playing a part. Change is hard - but we’re showing time and time again that when good people get involved, then change can happen. It doesn’t happen by accident. Good people need to take action.

How hard it is depends on the degree of change and the level of performance you aspire to.

Yes, to change yourself or your company into a top performer amongst your peers is hard. This is the area where we most often kid ourselves. Ask any room of executives whether they want their performance in a certain area to be the best in their industry, and they will enthusiastically affirm that they do. But they do so without insight into the degree of commitment required to achieve that end.

What can be hard is making sure that the change you create has the outcome you intended. Yes, you want to change the world - but how do you make sure you make it better for the long-term rather than making it worse? After all, we as a species are prone to intuitively grasp for simple answers to complex problems - the chance that we get it wrong is quite high.

The point is that change - whether changing yourself, or changing some aspect of the world, will be more successful if the agent(s) of that change have developed the skills that make successful change possible. We understand that point very well when it comes to corporate change - there is a huge literature on change management (that many leaders and managers ignore - hence the failure rate). We seem to assume it isn’t a thing when it comes to societal change. So long as we “do some good” then we’ll be helping, right?

There are a number of skills you need that will make it more likely you can be successful at the change you want to make in the world. Below are three of the most important. I’ll focus on others more in future posts.

1. Actively question received wisdoms and find out the facts

Our understanding of most situations and issues is based on statistics and ‘truths’ that we largely take on trust, which outrage or shock us into action, and which point to an intuitively obvious course of action.

Very often, there is at least one failure point in that chain.

Take the received wisdom I’ve already referred to in this article - that 70% of change programmes generally fail. That intuitively feels right, and it is quoted across the internet, in the Harvard Business Review, in learned books by impressive people. 

But it’s wrong. Or, at least, if it’s right then that is the most extraordinary statistical coincidence. A research study in 2011 looked at the statistic and found no empirical evidence to support it, and they traced it back to the 1993 book ‘Reengineering the Corporation’ where it was presented as “an unscientific estimate that as many as 50 percent to 70 percent of organisations that undertake a reengineering effort do not achieve the dramatic results they intended”. That line subsequently took on a life of its own regardless of the fact that the authors tried to correct the misperception in their subsequent book.

There have been many times over the years that I’ve seen some alleged piece of research about the effectiveness of some aspect of corporate social responsibility where I’ve then gone to look at the methodology used to find that it simply doesn’t support the cause-and-effect result claimed. The same happens with issues, particularly those where there is a lot of campaigning heat.

Let’s take one of the most difficult and fraught examples that we can - just because we’re all adults here and there are no safe spaces. And this means nothing unless you’re prepared to ask the uncomfortable. What is a socially responsible company to make of the current narrative around the gender pay gap?

For decades, I have talked with companies about their need to create greater diversity within the workforce, and it was always an unanswered question about what should be the end goal - how do you know when you’ve arrived? Should it be when your workforce looks like the demographic breakdown for the nation as a whole? Or for the local areas where you draw your workforce from? Presumably the male / female split should exactly match the national percentage numbers. It didn’t really matter, because every company was some way away from that outcome, and knew the direction of travel it should be on. It enabled us to avoid the distinction between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome - as though they were the same thing.

And, of course, the other aspect of the debate - and the one that has been prominent recently - is that people should be paid equally for equal work.

This has recently been given the force of law in the UK with large companies forced to report their gender pay gap. The implication is that any differences in the gender pay gap come down to discrimination, and that the correct answer for any company’s reported statistics should be zero. Plus, of course, anyone who questions any of the received wisdoms here runs the risk of stirring up a very vigorous hornets nest, so companies have largely complied and wrung their hands at the results and promised to do better.

And yet, research has shown multiple reasons why that gap can exist - and whilst discrimination is one of them, it accounts for a way smaller percentage than people think. And sometimes socially responsible companies can - counterintuitively - do what we would believe to be the right thing whilst making those statistics look worse. Let me explain with an example quoted by Warren Farrell in his book ‘Why men earn more’. A company had the policy of promoting women to higher positions within the company more quickly because they knew they were under-represented with women in positions of leadership. A good policy that CSR heads would certainly encourage. However, because those women had less experience at the time of promotion than the men who got the same promotion, they were paid less. Experience is a relevant and accepted factor to take into account when it comes to pay. So suddenly they had women being paid less to do the same job, but the context for this - that they were promoted earlier and with less experience with the intent to improve representation in senior management - was invisible. Seen outside of that context, it seemed like pure discrimination. They could correct it by paying those women identical salaries, but then you send a hugely negative signal to those that have earned higher salaries through more years of experience who suddenly get the message that that the expertise and maturity they have worked hard to develop isn’t valued.

Whatever you think is the correct answer to that dilemma isn’t the point here. It is one example of how much you need to properly analyse the factors that lead to pay differentials otherwise you won’t be able to effectively identify the real issues you have and to tackle them. Farrell identified 25 factors behind the pay gap, and many of them were things that individuals could be encouraged to address if they wanted higher pay. The truth was that higher salary levels involved certain trade-offs, and when people are given freedom to choose, many prefer things that provide a more balanced lifestyle over a higher salary.

That may lead to more companies following the lead of startups like Buffer, that have embraced ‘radical transparency’ so that all the components that go into the salary calculation can be seen and understood. But it’s easier for startups to take that approach than it is to retrofit it onto large established companies.

If you believe that the gender pay gap is one thing, and it’s all about discrimination - and yet with all the programmes of the last 20 years it’s not gone away - then you’ll believe this is such a hard thing that nothing can be done. And you’ll either assume failure is inevitable, or you’ll believe it’s a big conspiracy and draw up the list of ‘people to blame’. Either way, it seems like an unanswerable problem. But if you analyse all the different component parts, then it is possible to develop a programme that addresses the things that aren’t working well enough, and brings more transparency and understanding to what the differences are, and how to work with them to maximise your own position if that’s what you want to do. That sounds more achievable, doesn’t it?

This is hard. Sometimes those perceived wisdoms are things that you’re emotionally committed to. Sometimes your tribe or community will take some of those things as an article of faith. As a species, we generally take our opinions and unconsciously edit the facts to suit. But if you want to do things that make a difference, you have to know the truth about what you’re trying to change. You need to seek out the truth in a non-judgemental, objective way, looking for opportunities, not blame. 

2. Learn and understand how successful change happens

Ironically, it doesn’t happen by simply talking about the facts. Understanding reality, and having an improved sense of what needs to change, isn’t the same as making that change happen. In the example above, for instance, any pay structure for the company not only has to be fair, but it has to be seen to be fair. And because everyone else jumps to quick conclusions on incomplete information, it can be tricky to align perception with reality - even if you’re fully in charge of the change, which often we’re not.

If you want to make effective change, you need to become a student of how change happens. Otherwise you just reach for the obvious and intuitive actions, regardless of whether they have a track record of delivering outside some very specific and special cases.

So, for instance, campaign groups will call for boycotts at the drop of a hat. Recently, we saw people calling on others to delete Facebook from their phones. Such calls almost never work, and certainly not just because some campaign group decided that it would be a great tactic to ‘hit the company where it hurts’. Yes, we’ve seen certain pivotal boycotts work, such as the civil rights era boycott by blacks of public buses following the Rosa Parks incident. But this was a community united on a common cause, and the effort was widespread and sustained. Most boycotts lack sustained effort, they may focus on issues where the campaign group mistakes its own high sense of outrage for a widespread sentiment, and the targets may be poorly chosen. They may provoke a few news headlines and raise a little awareness, which some will say justifies the process in itself - but it shouldn’t be mistaken for effective change.

Generally, if you want to know what doesn’t work, you can look to the majority of campaigns - especially those that have no professional leadership element. Campaigning to tear down statues. No-platforming speakers (who consequently become massively more famous because of the attempt). Posting memes on social media. These are all recreational forms of change promotion - they keep the people that do them happy and they persuade themselves that it makes a difference in spite of all evidence to the contrary. If you’ve done your work properly on point 1 above, and you know that something needs to change, it’s not good enough.

Want to change a corporate culture to work in a more socially responsible way? You need to understand how effective change programmes have worked - to understand the importance of making visible cultural changes early on to make it feel that this is a work-in-process, to have identified early milestones of progress that can be reached and celebrated - and so on.

Want to change yourself? You need to understand how human habit-based behaviours work, and the known techniques for changing those behaviours. You need a system for focusing daily on the journey you’re taking, and the outcome you’re striving for. Anyone can commit to a diet, or say they’ll stop doing something. To be successful, you need a system - and there is always information out there about the research that has been done into what works and what doesn’t.

Want to create any sort of change that involves persuading other people? You need to understand the science of persuasion - what are the factors that make people believe the things they believe, and how those beliefs can be changed or accommodated. I speak as someone who in his early years focused more heavily on ‘knowing the facts’ and way less on persuasion. That makes you a maverick. Mavericks have a role to play. That can question things that others won’t dare to. But there are more effective change styles.

3. Know how to build an effective system

If you want to become an effective change maker - whether as a leader in business, an elite athlete, an effective campaigner, a healthier version of you - you need a system to make it work. A good system focuses on establishing direction and intended outcome, in developing capacity in terms of skills and resources, and then establishing routines that prepare for high quality execution.

When companies spend a lot of time trying to develop an internal corporate culture where people are expected to do the right thing - they’re trying to build a system to get consistent behaviours from large numbers of people. When companies introduce financial incentives for top executives to drive sustainability through the business, they’re taking a different approach but it’s still about building a system. Systems help people to get the desired results on a consistent basis. They need to be well designed.

Within companies, good systems create clear direction and leadership, they pull in accurate information and share it, helping people at all levels to make good decisions, they develop skills and resilience, and they set standards that help them to execute on tasks. They establish roles and responsibilities clearly. They have processes that can adapt to change. They evaluate outcomes and identify unintended consequences. And they have some bedrock of values that glues it all together.

Within individuals, you see the same principles. Effective leaders are often analysed and found to have their own system. They have decided their life purpose and direction and they have a routine, often a morning routine, to refocus on that. They are always hungry for information about their field, and often read outside their field for new insights that are applicable. They have an ongoing programme to continually improve their skills to suit their future direction. They set high standards of performance for themselves, and evaluate how they did at the end of the day. They take responsibility for all the aspects of their success.

Those are my first three. Agree? Disagree? What haven’t I yet covered that you think is a critical addition to the list? Let me know.

Do you care enough about making a change in the world that you’re prepared to commit yourself to developing the skills to make it happen?

Additional reading

To change the world you have to understand it

Stop using the excuse that change is hard - Harvard Business Review

Why Men Earn More - Warren Ferrell