The change paradox

Ask people if they want something new, something different, something better, and they’ll probably say “yes”. Get people to change their behaviours to use the new, different, better thing you’ve just built for them and it’s a different story. It’s hard. They don’t change.

At a basic economic level I guess you can explain this reasonably easily. The cost of saying yes to “jam tomorrow” is basically nil. The cost of changing how you behave is both in time (doing new things, at first, often takes you longer) and cognitive effort (the challenges of conscious incompetence). As a result, most significant changes in our world seem to happen from serendipity rather than plan.

Smart phones, for example, didn’t come about in their modern form because of Steve Jobs’ prescient blueprint – in his original incarnation the iPhone didn’t have Apps from third parties, the very thing it could be said that have totally revolutionised computing in the past 10 years. Chance, change of direction, and initial adoption because it appeared to be something that it wasn’t (let’s be honest, smartphones are to phones what spaceships are to ships).

Planned, structured change is a different matter. It often doesn’t work. The world of IT is littered with projects large and small that didn’t deliver what they promised because delivering something specific when it comes to changing human behaviour is very, very hard (and even harder if you think a system will do it for you). Watch how commercial software evolves and you will see opportunistic histories that have evolved and morphed over time. No one set out 30 years ago to build “an office suite” – they just kind of happened.

You can nudge people. You can hold a clear vision about where you want to be. And you can create the conditions by which they might get there, one way or another. Engineer serendipity, and get others to create their own too. But set out with a pre-defined method to get to that outcome and expect it to be delivered precisely and accurately and repeatedly? Well, if it works it, in itself, is probably as a result of luck more than judgement.