Behavioural change is still presented in many quarters with the same language as installing a piece of software. Or maybe sports. They show us a magic sequence, usually of not being ready, followed by thinking about it, followed by readiness, followed by being prepared, followed by change, followed by creating habits. It’s a map and we like maps. They give us certainty and decrease our anxiety.
The armchair ‘change industry’ is hooked on sequence. They are similar to the following mechanics of ‘children schooling’: put the alarm on, get up, brush your teeth, have cereals, get out and don’t forget the coat, reach the gates of the school, get it. Good luck if you think this is schooling for your kids. We are doing the same for behavioural change.
The reality is far more complicated. Readiness is usually a red herring. People who quit smoking are not universally ready to quit until the social pressure of the environment (a placed where nobody smokes, for example, or, as some studies show, the lack of smoking in their second of third layer of connections in their immediate social network) makes the magic. That ‘they were ready’ is usually a post-hoc fallacy.
Similarly, the mechanistic models of ‘steps’, if they existed at all, are very different in change at small scale or at large scale. What you do ‘to change’ in a one to one coaching set up, and what you do ‘to change’ at large scale in an organization, for example, have nothing to do with each other. The principles of large scale (as in social movements) are not the same as those in small scale, but in big. The famous ‘paradigm shift’ kicks in. What psychology can’t explain, is explained by social psychology; what social psychology can’t explain, it’s explained by sociology or economics; what sociology or economics can’t explain is explained by macro-and-geo-politics; and then, after, well, I shall leave it with you. Small scale change does not explain large scale change.
We have plenty of ‘change models’ around that take the magical thinking of ‘steps’, that people read as good logic, and extrapolate that as organizational change. It’s a fraud.
The ‘mechanics of change’ postulated by some consultants and academics to and HR/OD audience are old fashioned extrapolations of rather old psychology and usually ignore the ‘social animal’. Most of our changes are social-influenced by nature. The 3 steps to change, or 4, or 5, or 8, are frauds. But expensive and technicolour on PowerPoints. If people built bridges with the same rigour, they would fall down in a second.
Unfortunately, the answers are more complex and require serious understanding of more than one discipline. At the very least one in the individual side, cognitive psychology, and one in the social side, social movement theory. My rule of thumb is, if something starts with a phrase that contains the word steps, suspend judgdement and be critical. At the very least.