Disruption and the Energy of Change

Energy — our ability to generate and convert inspiration and enthusiasm into action — is at the heart of designing for change. Just like Design itself, we need to design for it to make it happen.

There’s a great analogy about juggling that suggests success is as much about how many balls you have in the air as their size. Success is about quantity and the mix of variables at play. Just like with tasks, the amount of energy it requires to adjust to this mix is substantial and the more changes, the more energy it requires.

Every single decision we make literally uses energy (more specifically, glucose). It’s why ‘stress eating’ is a thing. When we are under threat or overwhelmed with things to do our brains and bodies start asking for energy. Sugary and fatty snacks have that and a delivery system that ensures we get it into our bloodstream quickly.


The relationship between the neurobiology of energy use and our social and organizational lives is complex and fundamental. When we have the energy to process what we see, think deeply (and broadly) about it, and convert that to action we’re in innovation mode. What happens when we don’t?

The parallels here with decision-making are many. The more decisions we need to make and the more we attend to the greater the energy use demands we have. We might conserve energy on tasks (not put our fullest into our work) or do less of them. We might select — consciously or not — tasks that require less energy to perform, which may not be the right ones for the job.

This is one reason people procrastinate, avoid jobs, or choose tasks of a lower priority or importance than others.

Disruption’s Cognitive Complexity Cost

One of my personal hypotheses around why we saw such an uprising over mask-wearing and vaccine mandates is not because they were hard, unreasonable, or ineffective, but because they were seen as too much. These were things that people could connect a specific organization (e.g. government) to a specific decision (e.g., policy) using specific symbols (e.g., masks). Most other things had no clear cause and effect, yet there was so much of it. Some — admittedly and thankfully very few — people felt pushed over their cognitive edge.

With so many changes and modifications and the dynamic nature of what was happening, people lashed out. Add to this, climate catastrophes (wildfires, floods, drought and more), financial upheaval, supply chain issues, and now global conflicts and you have a tinderbox of complexity. People, quite rightly, are upset and some chose to see protesting a variety of causes under the guise of mandates as a means to spend and gain energy in ways that they saw as positive.

Could it have been different?

Finding, creating, and designing simplicity wherever we can is something that is worth the effort. Let’s find and enable people to focus on things they can affect that create stability, not further disruption. That’s the irony of it all — the protests and outbursts only made things worse for everyone. Most mandates were relaxed because they made sense, not because of protest.

Creating conditions for energy use that are efficient and positively focused is something we can do by design using behavioural psychology. Our well-being and much more might depend on it.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

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