Change rarely happens in the way conventional ideas suggest, individually or organizationally.

Despite all the pontificating that goes on about change and change management, the conventional image of how change works is badly flawed. If you want to make real changes—ones that stick—it’s time for a newer, more rational way to understand how change works.

The conventional view of change in the workplace pits a new, usually fragile idea for change against powerful forces totally committed to the status quo. Those pushing for change are, typically, a minority of individuals outside the ruling elite. They may have a compelling vision (at least in their eyes), but those opposing them have all the power.

This is why so many people give up on change. The contest appears so one-sided as to be hopeless from the start. “That’s a great idea,” they think. “It would be wonderful to see it happen, but there’s no way I could ever get it past the people in charge.”

In personal matters, too, change is pitted against entrenched forces of habit and apathy. People want to act differently, but they lose heart early on, discouraged by what seems to be an impossible task. It feels easier to resign yourself to the status quo than to take on something that is almost bound to fail.

But do you need permission?

This conventional picture assumes that change cannot happen without either gaining permission from those most likely to dislike the whole idea, or sweeping them away forcibly. It’s a view with conflict built into it; conflict that can only be ended by the surrender or destruction of one of the sides.

What’s missing is any idea that change might prevail because people have changed their minds. That no permission will be needed because those who were in opposition have decided to join the group in favor of change.

When you consider historical changes, far more have come about in that way than by either violent revolution, or the willingness of those holding power to allow change to take place as a deliberate course of action.

The unstoppable power of a united movement

Organizational change usually happens via a quite different route: the route of a movement with a specific end in view. It works like this:

  • One or more individuals reach the view that change is needed.
  • They discover like-minded people and start to group together for support in thinking their ideas through.
  • As more and more people get involved, it becomes natural to want to translate these ideas into action. A pressure group is formed.
  • The pressure group publicizes its views widely. If those ideas are taken up, they start to become accepted as obvious and natural.
  • Those committed to the status quo feel out-of-step with the majority. Far from being the ones with all the power, they now face an increasing sense of dissonance and vulnerability.
  • To regain their former feelings of security and strength, those in charge shift their position to align with the majority. The change has become the new norm.

You can already see how attitudes on global warming, for example, are shifting as the ruling elite move from denying it, to opposing any change, to getting on the band-wagon.

A pattern for individual changes

At the individual level, a similar process happens:

  • Someone gets caught up in an idea and finds others who already share it or can be persuaded to do so.
  • Together, these people reinforce one another’s attachment to the idea and provide mutual support.
  • The individual’s current lifestyle starts to feel increasingly out of alignment with the ideas that are current in the group.
  • To lessen the dissonance, that individual starts to make significant lifestyle changes. When these are approved by the group, they are reinforced.
  • In time, the changed lifestyle becomes the norm.

The power of shared ideas

What is driving change in both these situations—individual and organizational—is the power of shared ideas. Unlike direct demands for specific change, which can usually be beaten down by the use of power, ideas slip around the barriers.

At the start, they seem too weak to be worth trying to squash. Later, they take such a hold on people’s minds that it becomes impossible to drive them out. They even spread in secret, if overt opposition is too dictatorial to allow them free expression.

How can you crush an idea? How can you force people not to think it or pass it to others? How can you stop it spreading, even if you have all the means of institutional power at your disposal?

Nothing is quite as powerful as an idea whose time has come. For individuals too, the power of an idea that seizes your mind is almost unstoppable. It can change your life in a moment, even altering habits that you may have struggled with for years.

The message is clear: to make real organizational change you first need an idea that can grip enough people to start a movement. In your own life, you need an idea powerful enough to seize your mind, plus a support group who come to share that idea. Once that has happened, it is just a matter of waiting while enough momentum builds up to make the current ruling elite (or your existing habits) experience such unsettling dissonance that they have to change to resolve it.

That’s how change works best. Of course, it takes time . . . but nothing worthwhile ever really happened in a flash, whatever people tell you.

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