The new year sparks a period of introspection within us, and many decide to embark on a change initiative, whether it’s to get fitter, eat more healthily, learn a new skill, save more money or any of the other things people decide to include in their new year resolutions.

Of course, it’s also well known that the vast majority of these resolutions fail, with 90% of our efforts failing to sustain themselves past January.

With change such a fundamental part of organisational as well as individual life, what might these efforts tell us about organisational change?  If we strip resolutions back to their very essence, they are attempts to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily do.  Indeed, many of the changes we hope to undertake may be the hardest we could take on.  Failure, therefore, is to be expected.

Thinking and doing

It should be easier though, shouldn’t it?  I mean we’ve resolved to change something, so why is it so difficult to follow through on something we’ve resolved to do?  In ancient times, philosophers such as Socrates said that none of us do something we know is bad, and so their logic goes that if we can only teach people the right way, the battle is won.

Aristotle took a slightly more nuanced view that chimes more with the kind of fast/slow thinking we are more familiar with through thinkers such as Daniel Kahneman.  Aristotle said that our rational selves may be overcome by our emotional selves, thus the problem is one of brain not mastering the heart.  Kahneman built on this, and various studies have found that the bulk of our thinking is this rapid, autonomous sort rather than the more measured, deliberate kind that tends to deliver more reasoned actions.

So, when we think of resolutions, we’re almost setting ourselves the challenge to overcome this innate desire.  We’re saying to ourselves that our instinct is to have that extra slice of cake, but we should endeavour to force our brain to overcome our stomach.  We know it makes long-term sense, but we also know that in the moment itself, we can often succumb to short-term thinking.

Resolving to change

Given the quite awful success rate of most new year resolutions, it is perhaps not surprising that a lot of thought has been given to how we can do better.  The most well known of these was conducted by noted psychologist Richard Wiseman.  He suggested that the best resolutions typically have a number of traits:

  • They are broken into a number of small steps
  • They are changes that have been told to those close to you, because change doesn’t happen in a bubble
  • They involve regular reminders of why this change is a good thing
  • They see frequent rewards when small steps are achieved
  • They involve the tracking of progress that is visible and public

When these factors are combined together, they prove useful tools to help our mind overcome some of the short-term urges that tend to sink our change efforts.

We all know that the success rate of organisational change projects is as dire as those for individual ones.  Might there be some crossover?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.