Why Do Change Initiatives Fail?

By Chris Chittenden

"Increasing consciousness = increasing complexity."

… … Ken Wilber (b. 1949) American writer and philosopher

I was up in Sydney before Christmas and caught up with an old friend who also happens to be involved in the world of personal and cultural change. As often happens when people of common interests get together, our conversation soon changed to topics of common interest and we found ourselves sharing our ideas on why culture change is hard to initiate and even harder to sustain. Although there are clearly many factors in shifting culture, we ended up focusing on one; the heavy emphasis on behavioural change.

Now you might be thinking that it makes sense to focus on new behaviour in order to create a more desirable culture so it makes sense to put the most effort into the way people act. Yet such an emphasis overlooks a couple of key aspects of creating sustainable change at all levels.

The first aspect relates to a lack of appreciation of the importance of individual's worldviews. Our worldview speaks to our story about how the world is or should be. It relates to our values, core concerns, prejudices, preferences and so on. I have spoken many times before about the myth that all action is intentional and pointed to the idea that many of our actions are transparent or habitual and based on taking care of our core concerns. For example, if we have a worldview that is based there being a "one right way", then to behave in a manner that seeks consensus may well feel inconsistent with that approach. In this case, the upshot may well be heightened stress and a tendency to habitual patterns of "right way" behaviour when less mindful. This lack of coherence between worldview and required actions can ultimately lead to unsustainable change. The key is to help people shift into more complex worldviews and this is not a process based on simply learning new behaviours.

The second aspect relates to environment. People generally do not consider that the culture of an organisation is manifest in its environment. However, it is. The systems, policies, processes, oranisational structure and even the physical environment are a reflection of the culture. Given this lack of appreciation, it is little wonder not much is done to seek to shift the environment into a state more aligned with the desired culture. Here is a simple example. Most organisations seek to build cultures where trust is important, yet continue to put in place policies and systems that are based on the premise that employees are not trustworthy.

Ultimately, this is easy to summarise. If you want to build sustainable organisational cultures or even develop sustainable personal change, then think beyond behaviour. Look to develop an alignment between people's values and worldview, the environment within which they work and the expected behaviours. To do so will take more effort but will also enhance the chances of sustainable outcomes.

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© 2015 Chris Chittenden