Not Working vs Wrong

Changing course isn’t about being wrong, it’s about recognizing what works, when, and how.

One of the reasons why change in organizations (and people in general) is so difficult is that there is a misconception that it is because what you are doing is wrong.

We design our organizations, services, and products with the best information we have available to us and an assessment of the resources at our disposal. While there are decisions that yield greater benefit and positive outcomes, there are many misconceptions about decision-making that hold us back from making real change. Many of our outdated practices and policies made sense at the time and context they were created, but now that the culture, needs, and knowledge have changed so must we change, too.

The Psychology of Choice & Identity

In their book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), social psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, outline the many social, psychological and neurobiological ways in which we humans are wired and socialized to hold close to our positions and justify what we do. The book is a treatise on the myriad ways humans struggle with the concept of failure, mistake-making, and justification of decisions.

The concept of cognitive dissonance is of particular salience in shaping this intransigence. We are willing to hold to beliefs that make little rational sense to maintain a sense of personal integrity and coherence. The concept was first posed by psychologist Leon Festinger in the book When Prophecy Fails and the ways in which people struggle to maintain composure of their beliefs in the face of evidence that challenges them. This is even more pronounced in those who have a personality or work style that favours perfectionism – something that can be toxic to the workplace.

These issues all reflect an issue of identity: how we see ourselves (and others). Our perception of what others think of us, what we project to others, and how they align shape our identity image and that is a core part of our sense of self — but it also gets in the way of change-making. When presented with new evidence, a new situation, or a context that no longer aligns with your sense of self, we resist change and fail to see opportunities.

Myths of Change and Innovation

While we all must take responsibility for how we see things and change to some extent, our difficulties with change aren’t all of our personal making: they are systemic. By systemic, that isn’t a free pass to suggest it’s all beyond our control, but it is something we’ve collectively designed to some extent. Here are some of the ways we’ve done this through myths.

First is the prevalent myth of ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’. As mentioned earlier, many of our systems were designed in another time for different purposes and norms. We can’t change that, but we can adapt to the present context with what we know now. It’s not that the system is wrong, it’s that it was designed to do what it does (see Paul Bataldan’s quote on this) . So adhering to a poorly designed system isn’t wrong, it’s that such behaviour (adherence to the rules of the system as originally designed) are no longer working — that is, they are not achieving the results that we seek for the system.

Second is the myths of failure. I’ve written a lot on this (see here, here, and here) and simply want to reiterate that the way we talk about, celebrate (or condemn) failure, and frame what failure is – is deeply flawed. Such attitudes toward failure are inconsistent with how change works, innovation happens, and cultures evolve. Stop celebrating failure and hiding from it — chances are, it’s not actually a failure. The only real failure is to not pay attention and seek to learn from what you do.

Another is the myth of the independent learner. We have established systems that are antithetical to learning. Learning is a social act and while we can and do learn independently, it’s through the social engagement with that knowledge and application of it to problems, situations, and contexts that we actually learn. None of that is amenable to the concept of failure nor should it be an attack on our identity because it’s only through our social life and the exposure to difference that identity is formed.

Lastly, the myth of goals and success guides our organizational designs. Goal-setting is one way to stifle innovation when confusing technical, complicated (by straightforward) systems with those that are complex. Innovation and the creativity underpinning much of it does not adhere to tightly defined goals. The only appropriate goals are ones that fit the system they are operating in.

The takeaway is that reframing what we do as useful or not useful is the way to overcome many of the social psychological and neurobiological barriers we have in us to resist change. Change is constant and our ability to navigate, embrace, and deal with the conditions that support and sustain it are what will distinguish those who adapt, survive and thrive and those who are stuck defending systems that no longer work.

Change can be a big task, but by breaking things down it doesn’t have to feel like that. Contact me if this is something your organization or network is struggling with and you want some help. That’s what I do.

Photo by Tom Gainor on Unsplash and Madhu Shesharam on Unsplash

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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