Why Real Change Programs So Often Fail

January 12, 2000

All of us are living and working within systems – systems that have enormous influence over us and our everyday decisions and actions. Few of us have any true appreciation for the forces these systems impose. Most of these forces – these powerful influences – are well below our normal consciousness. We are hardly aware of the effects they have on us. They are far below our internal radar.

This is why we live lives in which we wonder why we act, think and relate in ways that we wish we didn’t. This is why we retain habits we dislike, why we repeat patterns we wish we didn’t, and why we sometimes have lives we don’t really want.

The term “systems” is not a particularly friendly word. It reminds one of accounting, or computer programming, or deliberate routines that humankind has created as part of our social infrastructure. But these are NOT the systems I mean to address in this article.

The Influence of Systems

I’m talking about those social systems that we engage in everyday, without much awareness or consciousness. These systems include expected ways of behaving, common beliefs and traditions, and hierarchies. Each system has its own set of values and priorities. Examples of these systems include our nationality, our gender, our country of origin, and our religious indoctrination as children. These systems also include the communities we live in, the schools we attended, the industry in which we work, and the companies in which we are employed.

All in all, most of us in the industrialized West are probably involved in several dozen systems that we don’t totally appreciate.

Let’s take just ONE of these, probably one of the most influential systems for most of us: OUR FAMILIES. The family system is so powerful that our childhood conditioning often prevails throughout our lifetime, even during family reunions while we are adults. Just think of all the Holiday family get-togethers where people so often return from these reunions wishing they never made the trip. Why? Because, for the most part, people found themselves acting just like they did when they were kids, plugging into similar behavior patterns and wishing they hadn’t. These sometimes regretful experiences are the result of insidious influences of the family system on us, long after we have grown up.

Family therapists know this dynamic quite well.

We Learn Early

I recall seeing a video tape produced by a highly-respected family therapist in the mid-1980s. The tape showed a group of children, mostly three to seven years old, in a family scene scripted by the therapist. For purposes of dramatic reinforcement, the children were all from households where there was at least one practicing alcoholic parent.

Bringing tears to my eyes within seconds after the tape started to roll, I watched as these little kids immediately assumed their “rightful roles” within the system. One played the alcoholic dad so well that it made my hair stand on end. Another child played the co-dependent wife perfectly, just as if it had been scripted and rehearsed. A little girl played her part as the over-responsible older sibling to a “T;” and the other child did a great job of playing the youngest sibling.

What was incredible, and so moving, was that no one told the kids how to act out their parts. They were only told what roles they had in the family. They figured out their scripts all by themselves!

At these early ages, these children already knew how to survive in the systems they were used to. They had already created their coping mechanisms so they could survive in the system in which they had been placed. They had become quite “adaptable” making them prime candidates for blending in to any other systems they might encounter later in life. They had learned how to “fit in” to any system, not matter how dysfunctional it might be.

Tears flowed from my eyes as I watched this video, seeing these little kids act out their parts so perfectly. I was amazed at how well they had figured out how to survive in this fictional system.

This video demonstrated how vividly we adjust to the systems we become acclimated to – be they families, work situations, social circles, or nation-states.

The Workplace

Workplaces are one of the most insidious systems – mainly because no one expects them to have so much influence over us. And, there are multiple layers – systems within larger systems. In addition to one’s co-workers (a system of relationships and friendships), there’s the company culture. Beyond this system there’s the industry. Beyond the specific industry there’s the economic system – one of the most powerful and dominating systems that exist in the world today!

To fully realize the influence that all these systems have over our lives and the way we live, it may help to have a very brief lesson in systems theory:

One of the first laws of systems dynamics that I learned was that our complex society has produced some very complex systems. AND, one of the first priorities for any complex system is to maintain the status quo. Survival is the first priority for any complex system. After its survival is assured, the system MAY support the major reason it was created. It MAY function like it was intended. But, FIRST, it will concern itself with it’s own survival. Anything that appears to be a threat to that survival will be rejected, resisted, and fought against.

This is why so many companies find it so difficult to transform. Mere cosmetic changes, those which aren’t seen as a real “threat” to the survival of the system, can be assimilated. But, any “meaningful change” may seem like a threat to the system and seemingly invisible forces will fight it all the way. Thus, major change programs often fail in complex organizations.

It isn’t you. It isn’t your “fault.” The system is fighting transformation, and you happen to be part of that system.

Appreciating systems behavior, and knowing more about how they function, can serve you in understanding the dynamics in which you are a part. Recognizing the forces that are working on you, many of which are less-than-conscious, will allow you to deal with them more effectively.

By understanding how these forces work and how they resist change might be a first step in gaining some dominion over them and allowing true transformation to happen.

John E. Renesch is a San Francisco writer, futurist, and business philosopher. His forthcoming book – Getting to the Better Future: A Matter of Conscious Choosing – is due out in late-January. To contact him call 415-437-6974 in the U.S. More information about him and his work can be found on the Web at John Renesch.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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