Why Facts Don't Change People



“Opinions are like nails: the harder you hit them, the deeper inside they go”

Decimus Junius Juvenalis, Stoic meditation (3rd century BCE)

The context in which we live and work has always been subject to change and the early 21st century is no different. Indeed some, like Google’s Sebastian Thrun, argue that because of widespread changes in society, politics, institutional power, science and the widespread use of social media, “this is the age of disruption”1. This suggested disruptive environment is often used to justify why many of our organisations are engaging in transformation programmes. These business change initiatives aim to realign an organisation with its new environment, so ensuring that the people involved have the necessary mind and skill sets to go about their business in the transformed business a success.

This all sounds perfectly reasonable but, before going into what makes a transformation programme successful, I’d like to digress a little and discuss our attitudes towards behaviour change...

Supposing you visited your doctor and she told you you had a severe problem with your heart and that, if you didn’t change your diet, you had fewer than five years to live. Would you change your diet? Most of us would respond with a categoric “yes”. If something as trivial as changing your diet would save your life you would do it, wouldn’t you? Well unfortunately, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that, even when given the ultimatum of “change or die”2, people simply do not change. In one classic scientific study, it was found that the odds of you changing your diet were 9-1 against.

Unsurprisingly, the reluctance to change our behaviour is no different in the organisational context. Indeed, in one study which looked at failed transformation programmes the research team at Said Business School, Oxford, found that the most common cause of project failure was “cognitive bias” (ie. issues caused by personal assumptions and bias). This is over and above technical, budgeting or specification issues. The researchers defined this more specifically as "strategic misrepresentation" and, moreover, were of the view our business transformation projects risk failure because of people lying3.

And here we enter the complex world of human behaviour change and our seeming propensity to resist change , despite rational advice on personal wellness, safety or success. Whether it be an opinion related to health, politics, economics or business transformation, people just do not always behave in a rational way.

There are several biological and psychological factors which underpin this irrational behaviour. It could be fair to assume that people only make poor decisions about change based on ignorance, fear or a lack of information, and perhaps better decisions based on based on rational thought and self-preservation. This thinking has dominated much of economic, political and scientific decisions, as well as organisational development for many decades. Unfortunately, this is much too simple a lens through which to understand why humans behave in the way they do and often act irrationally.

Julian Burton.jpgImage credit: Julian Burton, Delta7 http://www.delta7.com/

Let's examine a case study:

The client was a large, complex organisation. A consulting team was engaged to introduce the procurement methodology known as ‘category management’. Following an analysis of the savings that could potentially be achieved, several subject-matter specialists were deployed to lead the newly formed category teams. The process was supported by a commitment from the consultancy that the organisation would, through skills-transfer and the introduction of new systems, be left in a sustainable state at the completion of the project. Indeed, such was the level of this commitment that the consultancy risked a significant element of its fee on a comprehensive, multi-faceted client review, including an employee survey covering views of sustainability and confidence in the changes. The project progressed very successfully and after the review the consultancy received all its fees, including a bonus fee for over-delivering benefits not previously identified. The project was hailed as an enormous success by all concerned. Three years later, another consultancy was engaged to help the client with its procurement process as the client’s workforce had gone back to the inefficient practices which had existed previously. Their people had reverted to type.

So why did it happen?

The reality is that we are a long way from understanding the basis of human cognition, intelligence and behaviour change. Indeed, this area continues to occupy the laboratories and couches of experimental psychologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, behavioural biologists and, more recently, technologists developing Artificial Intelligence (AI).

This therefore presents a challenge for the organisational leader, as there is no way that they can be up-to-date with all the complexities. This is not to say that all consultancies and change specialists are acting in bad faith, it is simply that there are a lot of definitions of change management and methodologies in existence which have not yet been fully tested for efficacy. Even within the research community, there is very little cross pollination of ideas4 and a well-recognised gap between research, theory and organisational practice.

So what is the business owner to do? There are several principles that can help in this domain. Here are five of them.

Principle 1 – Seek out “promising practice”

To begin with, and simply as a function of the complexity of behaviour change, alarm bells should go off in a business leader’s mind whenever anyone claims to offer a best practice approach to behaviour change. The best any organisation can achieve in this area is “promising practice”. This suggests that how each organisation approaches its transformation programme should be uniquely designed to match that organisation’s culture and people.

Principle 2 – Develop critical thinking skills

Understanding which promising practices have the potential to help your organisation requires an understanding of how to use critical thinking skills in the business setting. So, for example, does your organisation understand the difference between anecdotes and data? Anecdotes, especially those garnered from self-evaluated employee surveys do not represent real data. Making decisions solely based on case studies also risks building your transformation programme on a weak foundation of evidence. Finally, critical thinking involves the ability to recognise the influence of our initial views and therefore the need to change our minds (one of the most difficult things for human beings to do and something not achieved by simply presenting the facts).

Principle 3 – Triangulate ideas

Leadership development is big business and, as such, is home to an array of gurus, often from sporting and military backgrounds, with the leadership “rock star” biography being ubiquitous in airports and corner offices. Whilst these books are entertaining, inspiring and occasionally useful, basing an organisation’s transformation programme on the latest fad, Olympic achievement or bestselling book oversimplifies the issue to a dangerous extent.

I was once asked, “Is nothing in leadership development sacred to you?” My answer was, “Well no , including what I say”. Putting our faith in a popular point of view or model, diminishes our ability to lead and learn effectively.

So, rather than following the latest guru, considering a mix of research, ideas and, critically, personal organisational knowledge, is much more likely to get the business to the point of promising practice.

Principle 4 – Network seriously and avoid narrowcasting

Once of the most exciting aspects of the spread of social media is that it offers business leaders the possibility of networking like never before. As a Vistage member, you already appreciate the value of getting together with other business owners and this can be taken to another level by taking a small cognitive leap and by utilising social media in a different way.

Oftentimes, and more often than many of us admit publicly, business success is not down to your business plan, strategy or your brilliant interpersonal skills, rather it is a function of pure blind luck. This is not just the domain of organisations - luck has been attributed to many Nobel science prize winners. What makes organisations lucky is a fascinating question and, as you may expect by now, a complex one. One answer that has popped out of the research and which may be promising practice is often referred to as “combinational creativity”. Simply put, better ideas and business solutions often come from talking to people from disciplines very different to our own. So, rather than using LinkedIn to connect with likeminded professionals (which I refer to as narrowcasting) perhaps think about using LinkedIn or technologies like Twitter to open up your network to inputs from scientist, artists and other types of contacts. You might just get lucky with an idea which springs up between you.

Hopefully this article will have given you some ideas on how to go about engaging in organisational transformation in such a way as to give you a fighting chance of achieving your hopes and aspirations for your business. We will consider a number of these issues as part of my Vistage offering (including the promised 5th Principle, amongst others).

The intersection between facts, human beings and change can be fascinating, complex and rewarding subjects; but, of course, don’t take my word for it, come along and decide for yourself.  

“I have strong opinions that are gently held” 

Connect with me on Twitter - @scott_mcarthur

More from Vistage:

Marcus Child - Personal Power

1 https://www.wired.com/2012/05/google-sebastian-thrun-future/
2 https://www.fastcompany.com/52717/change-or-die?page=0%2C0
3 http://www.citylab.com/work/2013/07/why-mega-projects-end-costing-way-more-expected/6364/