Why change is so hard

Upton Sinclair was an American poet and political activist, who ran for the Governorship of California in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

His campaign slogan was ‘End poverty in California’ – EPIC, for short. His policies were radical, socialist solutions, based on collective work and shared food resources.

At the time, California was full of extremely poor people, with no jobs, no money and very little food – so Sinclair’s ideas generated plenty of interest and support.

But, when it came to the crunch, voters rejected him in favour of a more mainstream candidate with more familiar policies. They just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of such radical change.

As Sinclair himself put it, ‘it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.’

I thought about that this morning, as I was picking my way through the tent village erected by Extinction Rebellion activists at the bottom of Trafalgar Square.

The ‘rebels’ I encountered were, broadly, likeable and articulate people.

Their demands seem reasonable: tell the truth about climate change and set up a citizens’ assembly to take the lead on what we should do about it.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy with their cause. The science is compelling and the clock is ticking. Nobody really wants the planet to be irretrievably damaged, or their grandchildren to have to travel to Mars to create a habitable environment.

So why are we not all pitching tents alongside them?

I don’t have a good answer for that. But I suspect it’s a combination of self-interest (my salary depends on the status quo), fear of radical change (I don’t trust well-meaning hippies to come up with a better social system) and the nagging suspicion that none of it will make any difference until the people at the top of the world’s big economies adopt these ideas as their own.

Which is, of course, what stops change working in most businesses.

Even when confronted with the burningest of burning platforms, most of us will still wait for a signal from the people in charge before we jump.

In other words, the single most important factor in making change happen is credible leadership.

The voters of California decided that Upton Sinclair didn’t have it.

But, when Franklin Roosevelt adopted a lot of Sinclair’s ideas into his New Deal, he had the power and credibility of the Presidential office (as well as a Congressional majority) to back him up.

The question for Extinction Rebellion – and all of us – is: where will that credible leadership come from today?

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

You have to give people a reason to care

If you go in the men’s bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport (and I realise some of you never will, so I’ve attached a pic), you’ll notice there’s a fly hand-painted on the ceramic of every urinal.

The flies are there because airport bosses had become concerned about the amount of time and money being spent on cleaning round the urinals.

It turned out male passengers were too distracted or in too much of a hurry to pay attention to their aim. Over time, these little spillages added up to a sizeable cleaning bill and a fairly unpleasant experience for travellers.

The airport’s facilities team tried a number of different ways to encourage urinal-users to be more fastidious: from polite cajoling to threatening notices to spot fines. Nothing seemed to make any difference.

Then some bright spark came up with the idea of the flies.

Men are instinctively competitive creatures, they suggested. You can keep giving them rational reasons to improve their aim and they’ll just keep tuning them out. Whereas, if you give them a target to aim at, they won’t want to miss.

The bright spark was right.

Accuracy in the trial urinal areas improved dramatically. Cleaning costs fell like a stone. And, since the painted flies have been rolled out to the rest of the airport, savings now run into many millions of Euros.

It’s a good example of the ‘nudge’ theory in action.  It’s also an example worth bearing in mind next time someone asks you to run a ‘serious’ communication campaign.

Because the best way of getting people to change their behaviour is not to keep banging on at them with rational arguments that they’re not interested in.

It’s to reframe the problem in a way that makes them want to engage with it.

If you can remember it, you weren’t there…

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock festival – widely regarded as one of the most important musical events of all time.

Woodstock allowed people in Vietnam-era America to believe another world was possible. It defined a generation and became a catalyst for a different way of thinking.

It brought liberal ideas into the mainstream, as people who’d spent their lives cast as outsiders suddenly realised there were plenty of other people who felt the same way they did.

Of course, that’s not how everybody experienced it at the time. In amongst the dewy-eyed reminiscences of peace and love, you’ll find descriptions of 15-mile traffic queues, basic sanitation that was quickly overwhelmed by a crowd ten times larger than anyone had anticipated, scheduling delays, sound problems – and a devastating storm that ripped through the festival on Saturday night and turned the field into a quagmire. If it happened at Glastonbury, people would be wanting their money back.

So it’s probably just as well that the song which best articulates ‘the spirit of Woodstock’ was written by someone who wasn’t actually there.

Joni Mitchell was supposed to be playing a small set at Woodstock, but her manager, terrified that the traffic gridlock would disrupt a scheduled TV appearance, made her pull out. She wrote the song ‘Woodstock’ in a Manhattan apartment.

David Crosby (who was at the festival and later became one of 347 artists to cover the song) described Mitchell’s song as ‘the perfect description’ of what Woodstock represented, rather than what it actually was.

When Crosby, Stills and Nash released their version of it, it went straight to number one – alongside the three-hour film of the festival, which filled cinemas up and down America, as an entire generation suddenly wanted to be a part of what was becoming a cultural phenomenon.

So, when baby boomers talk about Woodstock, they’re not usually talking about the festival itself. They’re talking about the spirit of the festival, as articulated in the song and the film.

That’s the thing about change. When you’re experiencing it, it often feels difficult and uncomfortable and chaotic.

Which is why, sometimes, you need to just take a step back and make sense of it. If you can do that, if you can articulate the change in a way that captures what it means, why it matters and how it feels when it’s at its best – that’s when you’ve got a chance of making the change stick.

If all anybody remembers is the mud and the traffic jams, you’ll never change anything.