With the new year in full swing, millions across the globe have resolved to change. To become better versions of themselves. But like clockwork, by this time next month, those "new year, new me" aspirations will be a distant memory. We'll revert to our old habits.

Why is it so hard for us to change?

I'm delivering a presentation and I pause to scan the auditorium. "The world is moving at a comfortable pace," I offer to the crowd. "Raise your hand if you agree with this statement." In a room of five hundred or more people, only two hands go up. We all collectively stare at these two individuals with envy. We wonder if they've come here from some remote part of the world still untouched by technology. I ask over 50,000 people a year this question, and the results, even with encouragement, are the same.

There has never been a better time to be alive. Knowledge is available to all, not just the select few. Success is no longer whom you know, but what you know. We connect, consume, and contribute in ways that our parents could only dream about. And individuals have more power than at any time in history.

"How many of you like change?" I ask.

A large majority of the audience raise their hands with enthusiasm. I follow up with "How many of you believe you could change if your life depended on it?" It takes several seconds for the crowd to digest and respond to this somewhat deeper question. Inevitably, fewer hands have gone up than with the previous question.

"After a heart attack, how many of you will adhere to a healthy lifestyle: eat right, exercise regularly, and stop smoking?"

The audience is shocked when I yell out the answer: "Twenty per cent! Or, to put it another way, one in five. Four out of five of you will not change to save your lives!"

And therein is the rub of change. Intellectually, we may have the will, but emotionally, it is damn hard. We can handle change when we are in charge of it, when we make the decision. But we struggle when change is imposed upon us--no matter what the stakes. In fact, most of us can't change our habits even in matters of life and death.

There are numerous reasons why we struggle with imposed change. Let's explore three of them.

1) Focus: We see what we expect to see.

In 1999, researchers at Harvard University asked participants to watch a video in which individuals passed a basketball around. Your task is to count the number of passes between players wearing white. Sounds easy, right? Just pay attention. Are you ready? Play the video and count.


Spoiler Alert! Be sure to watch the video before you continue.

How many times was the basketball passed? Did you notice the surprise visitor? If you did, congratulations: fully half the people who watch this video are so preoccupied with counting the passes, they don't notice the man in the gorilla suit walking in and out of the scene.

We largely see what we expect to see. So says Daniel Simons, co-creator of the Invisible Gorilla study, now a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. The more attention a task demands, he says, the less attention we pay to other things in our field of vision.

In business, there's constant pressure to acquire new customers, to drive revenue, to increase brand recognition. We inevitably become focused on what's in front of us and tune out the world around us. But while we might be successful at driving those KPIs, we become blindsided to things in plain sight. We don't notice changes happening across our industry. We don't pay attention to trends in consumer behaviors. We, unfortunately, lose our connection to the outside world--and what our customers are telling us they want.

What to Do About It: Build a "Sensing" Capability

Make sure that you build your capability of sensing, even predicting, the future. Who in your company is tracking the shifts that are occurring in your business? How about outside your business? Build your "outward focus" capability. Make sure that your company is not only tracking shifts in your business, but outside your business as well. Be sure that part of every team member's job is to step back from their area of focus and take a look at the wider world. It's likely that your biggest competitor will come from outside of your industry. You need to not only understand your existing competitors, but also the companies are out there that could easily move into your space and disrupt you.

2) Belief: We are destined to be biased.

The second challenge we must tackle is our inability to act in a manner contrary to what we believe. According to psychologist Leon Festinger and his cognitive dissonance theory, we all have a set of values and beliefs. And we are incredibly protective of them. When these beliefs clash--such as when you discover that an Uber-like company is disrupting your own industry--a tension arises and we do whatever we have to get rid of the dissonance.

This often results in crippling and irrational decisions. We'll do what it takes to find new information to overrule the dissonant belief. Kodak invented digital photography and when it began to cannibalize their existing film business, they convinced themselves to get out of the digital business, with grave consequences.

Suggestion: Stay flexible and experiment often.
You need to make sure that you have a focus on innovation and, especially, experimentation. Most great ideas don't start out that way. It takes time and multiple iterations to evolve into something worthwhile. Make sure you create (and reward) an environment that allows your organization to try new things and learn. This may help you break some of the biases that currently exist.

3) Baggage: Experience isn't always a good thing.

I recently talked to the CEO of a major company. I asked him "what keeps you up at night?"

His answer was simple, but revealing: "My 45 years of experience will make me see the new problems of the new world in an old way."

When the environment changes--and our world has changed dramatically--what worked in the past may be totally obsolete in the present or future. In my current role, I get to witness many organizations that haven't yet digitally transformed their organizations even though their customers' expectations and requirements have dramatically shifted. Experience should be used to inform your thinking; it shouldn't conform it.

Suggestion: Pause and seek others' opinions.

If you are making a really important decision and you immediately know the answer...pause. Take a 48-hour break and get others to look at the problem, including people with different levels and kinds of experience. You may discover that your instincts based on your past experience are keeping you from seeing things the way they are now.

Final Thoughts...


Darwin famously said it's not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It's the one that is most adaptable to change. Understanding what's holding us back is the first step in moving forward. This is a journey that we must all undertake if we have any chance of remaining relevant. Embrace change, be open to trying new things, and make sure that you feel uncomfortable. What new idea will you be testing out this month? Be sure to let me know.

Published on: Feb 15, 2017