Effective strategies to promote cultural shifts that tolerate change

We had the honor of joining a panel of speakers at a recent Behavior Change Conference. The aim of the conference was to bring together key decision makers and implementers of behavior change for energy efficiency programs on the higher education campus.

Here was the question we were asked to address:

Building users often follow similar thinking and when they see a new process not work, abandon it and revert to a previous strategy. What are some effective strategies to promote cultural shifts that tolerate change and imperfection in pursuit of a larger goal?

Annotated response is below with links to acknowledged references and resources:

I thought I would start with the short answer before broadening them with some lessons that we have learned:

  1. The simple reason that people appear intolerant of change is because they often do not have a compelling reason to change.
  2. New strategies and processes for cultural change stall, not because they are ill conceived, but because we have failed to connect people to why the change can result in a more compelling future than the one they are living in now - for them, and, more importantly, for those they know, trust, respect, and love.
  3. And, we quickly adjust course in the face of imperfection because, quite frankly, we are not a patient society - but, as I am sure you all know, cultural shifts and the new habits that you need people to adopt are not short-term prospects.

These are lessons we learned, some the hard way, over the last 10 years of trying to help organizations cultivate cultures that tolerate and eventually accommodate a new way of doing things.

You see, when we first started we took a path similar to what many others do when seeking to make cultural shifts in their institution, company or community.

We met with a small group of the few who had been looking at the need for change; we listened as they explained their evolved understanding of the need for change—an understanding that they assumed everyone else must have.

So we figured our job was to help them share their intention for change - their big idea, their concept, their plan, their strategy - whatever vessel of possibility they had created.

We developed beautiful presentations. We created guides for change. We wrote messages for communications.

And here is what happened…practically speaking, nothing. We saw some short-term changes in behavior, but nothing stuck.

We realized that the vast many in any organization can’t do what the few who had done…they can’t take the time, suspend their work and come to the same level of understanding of the need for change.

And then we realized that in all the presentations we created, and in all the speeches we wrote, we failed to connect people to the why.

REFERENCE: The sr4 Playbook,On The Path to Sustainable Change

There is an author by the name of Simon Sinek who wrote Start with Why and his foundational premise is that people don’t change because of what you are doing, they change because of why you are doing it.

Yet, those who have an intention for change are constantly leading with the what. It sounds like this:

We need to be more energy efficient on our campus. To do this, please make sure classroom thermostats stay at seasonal levels. This will help us save money.

Compare that to:

We believe in investing in your educational experience. To do this, we have programs like energy efficiency to ensure we are not spending money on the wrong things. Please help us by keeping classroom thermostats at seasonal levels.

People don’t adjust thermostats because there is an energy efficiency program. They adjust thermostats because they want to be good stewards of investments in their education, and the education of others.

REFERENCE: Simon Sinek, How Great Leaders Inspire Action

The second lesson we have learned is that a culture really is just a sum total of habits.

In his recent book, the Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, who is a NYTimes business columnist, wrote:

"Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits. And though each habit means relatively little on its own, over time, the meals we order, what we say to our kids each night, whether we save or spend, how often we exercise, and the way we organize our thoughts and work routines have enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness."

Here is the basic truth: When a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision making. Think about that…your campuses are filled with people, going through routines, who are not consciously thinking about their actions in terms of impact.

Any strategy which is meant to lead to change must, at its root, work to update individual habits which, in turn, will drive the cultural shift.

And, because there may seem to be a seemingly insurmountable laundry list of personal habits you must address, we have learned to place focus on the identification of keystone habits.

For reference, a keystone habit is a new routine that establishes a platform for other habits to unfold.

Here is an example to illustrate: Since January, our team has been working on helping a global workforce of 16,000 adopt a culture of well-being. Our focus is on 5 dimensions that contribute to a more healthy, active and productive lifestyle – physical, financial, social, career, and community.

What we are learning is that each one of these dimensions has a few keystone habits that can have a ripple effect for other desirable habits. Having people keep a food log for one week, a keystone habit for physical well-being, has a profound, lasting effect on future nutritional choices.

When we think in terms of keystone habits, it means that success doesn’t depend on getting every single thing right – we just need to identify a few key priorities and use them as levers.

REFERENCE: Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Our final lesson, and perhaps most important, has come about through the recognition that our world is organizing and changing in an increasingly social and cooperative manner.

This came to us as we began studying the rise of movements that are occurring around the globe, and then reaching back into the rich history of our own social movements here in the United States.

And what became clear was that all meaningful and sustainable change, no matter where it is being sought, occurs in the context of social circles.

Last year, Malcolm Gladwell commented that activism was a strong ties phenomenon. What he was referring to is that the people who stayed with the American civil rights movement were not more committed than those who dropped out…they simply had more personal connections to others in the movement.

If you are searching for an effective strategy that welcomes tolerance for imperfection …it is the strategy of enrolling the existing social groups of your community who adopt or compliment your cause…your why.

And here is the best part. People who are inspired by your why, your cause, they will connect and spread new ideas and habits within their personal social circles.

You see, cultural change isn’t about everyone suddenly deciding to think, act and behave differently…it is about social patterns of friendship that influence new patterns in communities.

At the end of the day, cultural change comes about in very practical, local, and endlessly underwhelming ways. In the history of time, no meaningful change has ever occurred from some central force attempting to exact its will on others. Rather, it has resulted from a million small beginnings.

And it is that very notion that challenges the tolerance and patience we have for change.

If we are looking for strategies that focus people on the creation of a culture that fulfills your intentions for change:

  • Start with the why – sharing a picture of the future that is more compelling than the present
  • Identify those keystone habits that can serve as the platform for other habits to unfold and spread through social circles
  • And, approach change not in terms of solutions that are needed for buildings, facilities, faculty, administrators and students, but as the ways in which to enroll a community of people in contributions that reflect their own interests