Tag: health behaviour change

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationpsychology

Exploding goals and their myths


Goal-directed language guides much of our social policy, investment and quests for innovation without much thought of what that means in practice. Looking at the way ideas start and where they carry us might offer us reasons to pause when fashioning goals and whether we need them at all. 

In a previous article, I discussed the problems with goals for many of the problems being dealt with by organizations and networks alike. (Thanks to the many readers who offered comments and kudos and also alerted me that subscribers received the wrong version minus part of the second paragraph!). At aim was the use of SMART goal-setting and how it made many presumptions that are rarely held as true.

This is a follow-up to that to discuss how a focus on the energy directed toward a goal and how it can be integrated more tightly with how we organize our actions at the outset might offer a better option than addressing the goals themselves.

Change: a matter of energy (and matter)

goal |ɡōlnoun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey

A goal is a call to direct effort (energy) toward an object (real or imagined). Without energy and action, the goal is merely a wish. Thus, if we are to understand goals in the world we need to have some concept of what happens between the formation of the goal (the idea, the problem to solve, the source of desire), the intention to pursue such a goal, and what happens on the journey toward that goal. That journey may involve a specific plan or it may mean simply following something (a hunch, a ‘sign’ — which could be purposeful, data-driven or happenstance, or some external force) along a pathway.

SMART goals and most of the goal-setting literature takes the assumption that a plan is a critical success factor in accomplishing a goal.

If you follow SMART, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely) this plan needs to have these qualities attached to them. This approach makes sense when your outcome is clear and the pathway to achieving the goal is also reasonably clear such as smoking cessation, drug or alcohol use reduction, weight loss and exercise. It’s the reason why so much of the behaviour change literature includes goals: because most of it involves studies of these kinds of problems. These are problems with a clear, measurable outcome (even if that has some variation to it). You smoke cigarettes or you don’t. You weigh X kilograms at this time point and Y kilograms at that point.

These outcomes (goals) are the areas where the energy is directed and there is ample evidence to support means to get to the goal, the energy (actions) used to reach the goal, and the moment the goal is achieved. (Of course, there are things like relapse, temporary setbacks, non-linear changes, but researchers don’t particularly like to deal with this as it complicates things, something clinicians know too well).

Science, particularly social science, has a well-noted publication bias toward studies that show something significant happened — i.e., seeing change. Scientists know this and thus consciously and unconsciously pick problems, models, methods and analytical frameworks that better allow them to show that something happened (or clearly didn’t), with confidence. Thus, we have entire fields of knowledge like behaviour change that are heavily biased by models, methods and approaches designed for the kind of problems that make for good, publishable research. That’s nice for certain problems, but it doesn’t help us address the many ones that don’t fit into this way of seeing the world.

Another problem is much less on the energy, but on the matter. We look at specific, tangible outcomes (weight, presence of cigarettes, etc..) and little on the energy directed outward. Further, these perspectives assume a largely linear journey. What if we don’t know where we’re going? Or we don’t know what, specifically, it will take to get to our destination (see my previous article for some questions on this).

Beyond carrots & sticks

The other area where there is evidence to support goals is from management and study of its/ executives or ‘leaders’ (ie. those who are labelled leaders and might be because of title or role, but whether they actually inspire real, productive followership is another matter). These leaders call out a directive and their employees respond. If employees don’t respond, they might be fired or re-assigned — two outcomes that are not particularly attractive to most workers. On the surface it seems like a remarkably effective way of getting people motivated to do something or reach a goal and for some problems it works well. However, those type of problem sets are small and specific.

Yet, as much of the research on organizational behaviour has shown (PDF), the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation is highly limited and ineffective in producing long-term change and certainly organizational commitment. Fostering self-determination, or creating beauty in work settings — something not done by force, but by co-development — are ways to nurture employee happiness, commitment and engagement overall.

A 2009 study, appropriately titled ‘Goals Gone Wild’ (PDF), looked at the systemic side-effects of goal-setting in organizations and found: “specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.” The authors go on to say in the paper — right in the abstract itself!: “Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

Remember the last time you were in a meeting when a senior leader (or anyone) ensured that there was sufficient time, care and attention paid to considering the harmful side-effects of goals before unleashing them? Me neither.

How about the ‘careful dosing’ or ‘close supervision’ of activities once goal-directed behaviour was put forth? That doesn’t happen much, because process-focused evaluation and the related ongoing sense-making is something that requires changes in the way we organize ourselves and our work. And as a recent HBR article points out: organizations like to use the excuse that organizational change is hard as a reason not to make the changes necessary.

Praxis: dropping dualisms

The absolute dualism of goal + action is as false as the idea of theory + practice, thought + activity. There are areas like those mentioned above where that conception might be useful, yet these are selective and restrictive and can keep us focused on a narrow band of problems and activity. Climate change, healthy workplaces, building cultures of innovation, and creating livable cities and towns are not problem sets that have a single answer, a straightforward path, specific goals or boundless arrays of evidence guiding how to address them with high confidence. They do require a lot of energy, pivoting, adapting, sense-making and collaboration. They are also design problems: they are about making the world we want and reacting the world we have at the same time.

If we’re to better serve our organizations and their greater purpose, leaders, managers, and evaluators would be wise to focus on the energy that is being used, by whom, when, how and to what effect at more close intervals to understand the dynamics of change, not just the outcomes of it. This approach is one oriented toward praxis, an orientation that sees knowledge, wisdom, learning, strategy and action as combined processes that ought not be separated. We learn from what we do and that informs what we do next and what we learn further. It’s also about focusing on the process of design — that creation of the world we live in.

If we position ourselves as praxis-oriented individuals or organizations, evaluation is part of regular attending to the systems we design to support goals or outcomes through data and sensemaking. Strategy is linked to this evaluation and the outcomes that emerge from it all is what comes from our energy. Design is how we put it all together. This means dropping our dualisms and focusing more on integrating ourselves, our aspirations and our activities together toward achieving something that might be far greater than any goal we can devise.

Image credit: Author



psychologysocial media

Mindful Navigation of Complexity and Social Media

Meditation 1
Social media is probably THE word of 2012. Facebook goes public, Twitter takes off, and YouTube and LinkedIn are hitting their stride. Add mobile data to the equation and the prospects for a truly interconnected web (no pun intended) of humanity in real time is becoming close enough to imagine being real. The singularity indeed may be near and social media is helping lead the way to a new global brain.

Evolving our thinking and the role of social learning

We are at another inflection point in social cognition. We have evolved our thinking from units associated with families, to tribes, to institutions and more recently to networks. With each step, the complexity of the communications increases. Consider the Facebook status update and the myriad sets of relationships that are wrapped up in the audience for that post and the intricacies associated with deciding who should see that post or who should have access to it. (For the record, Google + is immensely more easy to navigate with its Circles, yet it still hasn’t quite caught on).

With every additional layer of connections so too does the complexity associated with those connections. It is no wonder that people are feeling overwhelmed, confused and disturbed by social media, and yet it is pulling us into a new (media) world order that is seemingly inevitable.

Let me unpack these ideas. Firstly, the move towards social media is as much a way forward, but also a return to the past when ‘news’ was transmitted socially. It is also a means of navigating complexity. When the abundance of information available to us is as great as it is, humans need ways to efficiently filter information for effective sense-making. To this end, recommendations from our peers and social learning is an efficient way to side-step this. We use a form of distributed cognition to mitigate the risk and assist in our decision making and use others as a proxy for thinking about problems. It’s not that we’re stupid or lazy, we’re being efficient.

Filter failure and the problem of information volume

Clay Shirky has arguedwe are not living with information overload, but filter failure. This is true and not true, because we are exposed to more potentially meaningful bits of information than ever before, not just more information. While Shirky is correct that we have had more information than we could possibly consume at any one time for generations, the increase and ease of access to this information through electronic media and the personal relevance of this information makes our current circumstances different.

We now have tailored news services/apps like news.me and Zite that help filter information, but they also add to the number of sources that one regular checks to get news. I use Twitter as a primary news source, but as my list of followers increases along with those I follow, the number of engagements I have through that media increase every week. Add email, Facebook, Google +, my LinkedIn groups and connections and the RSS feeds I subscribe to and its amazing I am able to do anything with any of the information I get.

That is part of the problem. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness is a potential solution.

Mindful escapes

This past week’s Opinionator column in the NY Times was on the busy trap that we find ourselves in. This was published the same week as The Atlantic published a piece on women’s challenge of ‘doing it all’ that I commented on in my last post. Both articles point to a trend toward expectations of having to do too much and not finding the time to squeeze it all in. Mitch Joel from Twist Image refers to this as the age of digital anxiety and points to some resources like calm.com that are designed to help people take themselves away from the fray, even for just a few minutes.

Another resource designed to help work with this complexity is Buddhify, a website and app designed to bring mindfulness into the everyday life of people on the go. I use this regularly and really enjoy it.

Yet, these are all ways to deal with the output of information and the complexity it produces in our lives (along with the attendant stress and time-pressure). What we are not doing is mindfully attending to this complexity as a whole, asking what it serves. Just as we humans created this social media landscape, so too can we re-create it. We are at a point in the evolution of our media ecology that Marshall McLuhan notes was at a point of serving us and is shifting to having us serve it, unless we engage in mindful (re)design of our system.

Before moving in this direction, we first must as a simple, but important design question: what was social media hired to do for us? 

If we are to mindfully design our social media ecology and do it in a manner that promotes empathy and connection, rather than overwhelms us; engenders learning and insight over simple content absorption; and promotes creativity and innovation rather than just talks about it, we need to answer the question more intently and act accordingly.

Applying complexity questions and mindfulness to social media use

From a complexity perspective we can note a few things as we engage in contemplative inquiry on social media. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the boundaries of my (social) media ecological system?
  2. What are the attractors that organize my activity (what do I pay attention to voluntarily or involuntarily)?
  3. What new insights and patterns of behaviour emerge from these interactions?
  4. How have those new insights and behaviour patterns influenced what I do?
  5. How have the products of those changes been fed back into that media ecology (what have I taken away?, what have I given back?)
  6. What have I hired social media to do for me?
  7. Is this serving me and my interests (which include that of any social units — family, firm, community, network) ?

Contemplate that as you engage in social media use and you may find surprises. I’d love to hear about what those are.

behaviour changecomplexityinnovationpublic healthsystems thinking

A Mindful New Year

Cutting through the swamp of information (CC by Mindfulness)

What is mindfulness and why should we be paying attention to it in our individual and organizational work in health systems? As the calendars change and we begin to reflect on the year past and what is to come, it seemed like a good time to ask that question.

Shifts in the calendar are always strange and wonderful events for me. On one hand, it seems that the world has changed with new possibilities, (literally) new calendars and date stamps on everything, and what seems to be a wave of renewal and energy among friends and family. It is the time when people make resolutions and aspirations to make the world and their part of it a better place. As I’ve written before, this is not unproblematic and often leads to failure, but the act of reflection is one of the consistent benefits regardless of whether goals are achieved or not.

Mindfulness, an intentional act of paying active attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner, has been found to produce benefits for individuals and organizations alike. University of Toronto professor and psychoanalyst Scott Bishop and others have sought to take the idea of mindfulness further by looking at what this act of paying attention really is and how it could benefit human wellbeing. In their 2006 paper, Bishop and his colleagues reviewed the state of the literature on mindfulness-based approaches to health and wellbeing and convened meetings with those doing research in this are with an aim to come up with a more specific definition of mindfulness suitable for research.

To that end, they came up with the following:

We propose a two-component model of mindfulness. The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

This model has some critical features worth expanding upon, particularly for those of us working on issues of health.

1. Self-regulation of attention. Unlike a traditional marketing approaches that seek to capture our attention and dictate things to us, self-regulation implies some sense of resistance to the messages that come or are thrown up at us (think: Times Square for the most extreme example of this) and control. It is tied in with self-determination theory and many other health behaviour change theories that stress the importance of having self-directed influence over our cognitions and emotions rather than having them unduly, mindlessly, influencing us. It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy when you’re bombarded by media messages.

2. Maintaining focus on the immediate experience and the present moment. Here I turn to sage wisdom of Yoda in his conversation with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi about the problems Luke has with sustained attention on the present, rather than fantasizing about the future.

A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.

Jon Kabat Zinn has written and spoken extensively on this problem of sustained attention on problems and how our attentive resources tend to focus on almost anything but the present moment. Just spend a moment paying attention to where your mind is right now and it is probably not fully in the present.

3. Encourage curiosity, openness, and acceptance. These three points, joined together, are ones that are near and dear to my heart because they are so poorly done within my world of public health research and practice, despite what it may appear. Curiosity means supporting innovation — translating knowledge into actionable products that have transformative value (that is, it changes the way you see, act and engage with things – including ideas) — is something spoken of widely, but rarely achieved. Funders, researchers, policy makers and politicians alike are all becoming more risk averse it seems and that is almost antithetical to curiosity, which necessarily means going into the unknown.

Openness, a problem I have written about, is also something spoken of, but not acted on as often as words might appear.

And acceptance builds on the other two, drawing us to consider the value in new ideas and perspectives that differ from ours. It means attention to diversity and a welcoming of difference. That kind of thinking however, steers us into the realm of complexity, where the idea of best practice (a concept that seeks to reduce difference) is inappropriate in favour of good or appropriate practice.

Becoming mindful enables us to attend to the complexity of human systems and can guide our thoughts and actions in a manner more aligned with our purpose for doing what we do in the first place. It is that re-alignment of purpose and the desire to understand what we’ve done in light of what we desire that prompts such attention to New Year’s resolutions this time of year. A more mindful take on this suggests that we may wish to consider doing this much more than just at the end of December and beginning of January. Imagine what we might do then?

Happy Mindful New Year!


behaviour changehealth promotionpsychologypublic health

New Year’s Resolutions: If You Must…

We Resolve To No More New Years Resolutions! (CC - Meddy Garnet)

The holiday season now takes a shift away from the goodies and rich foods that start with Hanukah and (almost) end with Christmas. There’s one last big day left*: New Years Eve/ Day.

* In Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK we have Boxing Day today, the day when all the unsold merchandise for Christmas goes on sale and people do silly things like camp out overnight on Christmas Night so they can get a deal the next morning. It’s just like Black Friday in the US.

People often wake from the sugar-induced near-comtose generated by all the treats on Boxing Day to realize that their new holiday pants fit tighter than expected, that the number of wine bottles in the recycling are hard to count, and that the return to everyday life that comes after the holidays might not be as jolly given the absence of any holidays to look forward to. Add to that the myriad “year in review” lists and recaps on television, print and the Internet and its quite natural to want to make a New Year’s Resolution.

The answer to that is: don’t do it. They don’t work and the whole thing is one big fallacy.

But evidence never stopped people from doing things before — even physicians and scientists — so if you must make them, here are some recommendations from a person that teaches a graduate level health behaviour change course on how to be a little smarter about goal setting:

1. Be specific. Declaring that you’re going to be healthier in 2011 isn’t providing much to go on. Does that mean that you’re going to eat better? And if so, what does that mean? A big mistake is that people keep their goals too general and thus, never really know if they’ve acheived them. One rubric to use is the S.M.A.R.T system for goals. S.M.A.R.T. refers to goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Framed. The closer you can adhere to these, the more likely you are to achieve them.

2. Keep quiet. There is a school of thought that suggests that advertising your goals to the world (make them public) is a strong way to motivate change. The thinking here is based on theories of social norming and pressure that suggest that the fear of letting others down will motivate you to succeed. That might have some currency, but it paradoxically fails for reasons that have little to do with others and much to do with our brain. Research from NYU psychologist Peter M. Gollwitzer and his colleagues (PDF) found:

When other people take notice of one’s identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one’s performance of the intended behaviors is compromised. This effect occurs both when the intentions are experimenter supplied and when they are self-generated, and is observed in both immediate performance and performance measured over a period of 1 week. It does not emerge when people are not committed to the superordinate identity goal.(p.616)

Some other resources on this are available here. This isn’t to say that you can’t share aspirations with people, but when you declare you’re going to do something out loud ( following S.M.A.R.T) and get feedback from others, your brain starts to imagine that you’ve already accomplished the goal and is already diminishing your motivational fire.

3. Do it for yourself. Another reason these publicly stated goals might cause problems is that often we announce goals that we want to believe in (or believe others approve of), rather than those we want for ourselves. A large body of evidence suggests that we’re much more likely to do things that fit with our self-concept and values than those that challenge or complicate it. Self-determination theory is the foundation for this concept. Author Daniel Pink wrote an accessible piece on this in his recent book Drive. This can be applied broadly or more specifically. For example, with regards to weight loss, there are a lot of options to assist that from changing the food you eat and the way you eat (not dieting, which is a far larger fallacy than New Years Resolutions and persists even more) to exercise. Perhaps running on a treadmill is something that bores you to tears, so try a group dance class instead. If you’re not a fan of salads, try doing more with beans, oatmeal, nuts, fruit or smoothies. There are lots of ways to get the same place, but choose the things that you really like first.

4. Be social and connect. Even if you’re not announcing your goals to the world on YouTube or doing all the things you want to do first, it is still important to be social. Research on social networks and health show remarkable links (pun intended) between our social networks and our health behaviours. Smoking, obesity and mental health are all enhanced by having strong social networks (however you connect — this isn’t just about Facebook or Twitter). Building strong connections with people can offer so much benefit in terms of keeping you healthy, informed and “human”.

5. Help yourself by helping others. If you want to reach your goals, try helping others reach theirs. Working with your friends and family to support them in reaching their goals can actually strengthen your own resolve. Communities of practice are groups of individuals that are motivated to support each other in solving particular problems that often fall outside of traditional lines of work, discipline or problem domain. These collectives are often self-organized and volunteer-oriented and because of that, they capitalize on many of the aforementioned points. Find a community of people tackling the same problems and offer your assistance and wisdom. In doing so, you might find that you start to work through your own challenges and issues. Research on complex systems shows that small, incremental changes over a long time will produce much more stable change than radical upheavals at once.

New Year’s resolutions are problems because they often set us up for failure. Perhaps the one resolution that you will want to follow this year is to skip the resolution altogether and commit to doing something small often and enjoying yourself and those around you while you do it.

complexityemergencepublic healthsystems sciencesystems thinking

Recombination: The Missing Link Between Linear and Non-Linear Views of Change

I teach a course in health behaviour change and one in systems thinking perspectives on public health. Both courses complement each other and both deal with change. However, most of the major theories of behaviour change deal with the subject in a straightforward, linear manner. Models and theories like the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action, and Social Cognitive Theory all have elements explicit or implicit to them that suggest change occurs in a largely linear manner from problem state to desired state.

One of the more popular models of change is the Transtheoretical Model, which included the concept of Stages of Change. Developed by James Prochaska and colleagues at the University of Rhode Island (and others), the model has become widely popular and used all over the world to guide change efforts. The problem is that the evidence for its effectiveness, despite the logic it brings with it, is weak.

Robert West, the editor of the journal Addiction, and others, issued a rather stinging set of criticisms against the Transtheoretical Model’s Stages of Change concept, pointing to the evidence that suggests that as many (if not more) people quit smoking or behaviors like that with no apparent plan in place. “It just happened” .

Indeed, the data suggests that Stages of Change is not that strong as a predictor of eventual change, yet its popularity suggests something that goes beyond evidence. At its root is the idea of “ready, set, go” and taps into our deep-seated interests in making plans and moving ahead in a straightforward manner. In short, it fits linear thinking to a tee.

Over time, proponents of the Stages of Change theory and related models and theories have asserted that people do move forwards and backwards through the stages and that it is not simply a one-way view of change, but in both cases the end is still some form of linear trajectory.

What makes behaviour change theories like the TTM and others problematic from the perspective of complexity is that they are linear. Yet, linearity is the way we define the problems in the first place. These theories are all based on some form of cognitive-rational foundation that take at its core the idea that information is the starting point for change and that the way information is perceived and worked through will serve as a touchpoint for further motivational activities.

What is embedded within this assumption is the idea that, once configured, information is organized in a relatively stable, consistent manner. What it does not do is account for the ways in which our memories, circumstance, situation, and the addition of new information can only only change what we know, but also the way in which we know it. Thus, recombination of information leads to new insights and activities, not all of which are necessarily in support of the trajectory that was initiated.

Richard Resincow and Scott Page start to probe some of this terrain in their article published a couple of years ago looking at quantum change. The article, which was widely discussed, challenges the very notion that the approach we take to behaviour change is misaligned with much of what we know about complex adaptive systems. And to this end, the human mind and body is indeed a complex adaptive system in many respects. Certainly our social worlds fit this description.

If this is the case, and we take this idea that recombination of information can and does occur, it has profound implications for how we develop social institutions and the way in which we support individuals looking to make changes. It means not expecting that changes will stay in place, but rather always anticipating the possibility that something might shift and dramatic transformations could occur.

Flexible strategies, adaptive strategies and those that attend to context and the constant, dynamic flow of information are those that will provide more useful models for change in this worldview. It might now repudiate the models we use now, but it certainly casts new light on the directionality of change that they invoke. And in simply shifting those arrows around, we open possibility for understanding change in a wider way that might eventually lead us to one that takes complexity into account more fully, and learning.

behaviour changepsychologysocial media

Social Media / Social Activism Redux: Can we Learn from Behaviour Change Theories?

What started as a simple column post a column on October 4th in the New Yorker has really turned into a firestorm of discussion over the last few days (reflecting a building crescendo of discontent and plaudits from those on each side of the debate). The latest volley in the debate has come from the founder of Twitter themselves in a piece in the Guardian. In that column, the chief Tweeters remark:

Williams said:

“It was a very well-constructed argument but it was kind of laughable.

“Anyone who’s claiming that sending a tweet by itself is activism, that’s ludicrous — but no one’s claiming that, at least no one that’s credible. If you can’t organise you can’t activate. I thought [the article] was entertaining but kind of pointless.”

They have a good point. But while Gladwell might be too dismissive of the power of tools like Twitter, it is easy to overstep and imply that information is power and having more of it networked leads to activation (something I discussed earlier this week).

Knowing and doing are very different and any analysis of major theories on behaviour change and the evidence, shows a relatively weak correlation between knowing more and doing more. It also shows an OK, but also not a strong correlation.

What does change people’s behaviour? Lots of things — and that’s the problem. The either/or thinking that permeates the discussion of social media is too often simplistic and driven by an interplay of ideas and values that are not always aligned with the evidence or personal experience.

People tend to change for the following reasons:

1. They have information that tells them there is a threat or a problem with the status quo;

2. Others believe that the behaviour should be changed;

3. The person changing actually cares what other people think;

4. That person has the skills and tools to be able to change;

5. The environment is supportive of change and facilitative (e.g. there are policies, procedures, access to resources — including time);

6. There are more pros to changing than cons (and there are more pros to the strategy of change than the cons);

7. A person actually wants to change (they are self-motivated and not doing things because everyone else thinks they should);

8. A person feels capable of making the change at all.

The more of these elements are present, the more likely the change is going to take place and stick. This is a big list and indicates that change isn’t always straightforward, and it certainly isn’t easy.

The revolution most likely will be Tweeted, but whether that is the cause or the consequence is why research on social media and social activism is needed. Otherwise, we will wind up with another chicken and egg problem.


Chicken, Eggs or Social Eggs?


behaviour changecomplexityemergencepsychology

Complex Change and Energy


Simple, straightforward and predictable things are pretty boring, but they at least can be understood without much effort. And sometimes that simplicity provides comfort that we can’t find in complicated, complex or chaotic events. As we find ourselves working long hours eating badly and sleeping less hours than our body would like its no surprise that we find a lot of organizations trying to make complex change using simple processes (that won’t work). It’s tiring thinking about complexity and simplicity is, well, simple. We don’t need to consider the pushback that could come from making our morning coffee, we need not worry about the unintended consequences of ironing our shirts, or contemplate the emergent patterns that come from picking a green M&M out of the holiday party bowl over the red one. After a long day at the office or an emotional conversation with a loved one, these ‘simple pleasures’ as they are often referred to provide us comfort that can’t be found in complexity.

But change is rarely a pleasure, but always an adventure; When it comes we need to be ready and have the energy to tackle it.

It is perhaps for that reason that people try to deny it or over-simplify problems. Its the very reason why the self-help book section of a store is so big, why New Year’s resolutions are so popular (do you have yours yet?), and why late night infomercials and daytime talkshows still persist in their efforts to sell us the quick and easy change. Change your life in three, five, seven, 10 or 12 easy steps!

It is never that easy. If it was, I could teach my students health behaviour change in an evening seminar at a hotel airport instead of a semester-long graduate course that is, at best, showing the ice floating above the waterline. However, in that proverbial sea of self-help resources one of the few ideas that stands out comes from The Power of Full Engagement. In the book, authors Jim Loehr and and Tony Schwartz point out that a key to change is managing energy as much as it is our cognitions, emotions and behaviour. It is the energy we bring to situations that is the necessary precondition to becoming fully engaged and able to change. It’s why its so hard to pay attention in class or a meeting when you’re tired. Or why you tune out when the message itself is tired; the same old stuff trotted out again and again.

Change in human systems is complex.

Tired individuals and organizations tend to opt for those solutions to complex problems that are simple and, as H.L. Menken said, wrong, — see my last post. Ever seen profound change take root in an exhausted environment? Not me. It’s one of the reasons why effective leaders are those that aim to spark emotion and raise the energy level of those that follow them as much as instill new ideas. Indeed, if you look at many of the best leaders out there, they tend to create environments where new ideas come from introducing new ways to see the complex and make it exciting. A terrific example of this is Benjamin Zander’s talk at TED looking at how the complicated structure and complexity of classical music can enliven the spirit.

So perhaps our first strategy to change is to take a nap, play some Chopin and watch an inspirational movie than try and solve it otherwise we might end up with simple and wrong solutions to complex problems and be no better off for it.