(Well, you know: we all want to change the world.)
I think a lot about culture change. I read about it, study it, find clues to it everywhere — from discoveries of our primal history to the leading edges of neuroscience and physics.
What’s the first thing to know about culture change? It’s this. We’re hardwired to thrive in close quarters with a bunch of diverse, and even scary, critters. Why? In a word: water. We must come out of our caves fairly often to go to the watering hole and mix it up with others. If not, we die. Pretty straightforward.
So, we’re built to crowd together around scarce resources. It isn’t like everyone needs to think, look, or act alike to get along and get the job done.
The second thing is: to survive in that scenario, we evolved to react with lightning speed to new information in our environment. We’re built to respond to scary encounters, for instance, at a level way below consciousness. How? The brain picks up on something, sending out an alarm that triggers chemical cascades to kick our bodies into gear. We’re off and running before we even know why.
So? That means communication starts much sooner than we think.
A third thing we’re wired for is patterns. The brain sorts information. What it recognizes it puts on high speed rail directed to a hub of powerful connections that make the most of it. The trouble is a particular destination may be popular, but it isn’t always the best place for the information to land. We may react to a rare jewel of information through an old pattern that’s wary of anything that feels like the rock that hurt us long ago.
We don’t always recognize that. Neural patterns mean a whole universe of systems get busy at pretty much the same nanosecond. By the time that pulse of rich information reaches the intellectual part of the brain for a response, we already have a bunch of chemicals running through the halls of the body acting up. “Wow! This feels great!” “Oh crap. Not this again.” “Cool! This usually means I get candy.”
So, if you are a typical mammal — say, an antelope — chances are, you are halfway across an open field before the impulse to check in on what’s happening occurs. Wow, uh-oh, or yum are sorted out on the fly.
But, wait, we were talking about culture change, right?
The point is that we the people chuck a bunch of information together, run it through a complicated filter, and see how it feels. We take off, then try to figure out where we want to land. Especially in a world of information overload, it’s natural to fish for patterns that quickly get us back to some picture we like, some level of comfort. We want instant yes’s. Things that make our systems say, “Rest easy. Find donuts.”
What in the world would be more attractive? Ah, here’s where the watering hole comes in.
Not everything we respond to from our primal systems is a threat. Not everything is a kumbaya either. Some things come in through a whole new circuit.
A challenge to the patterns hardwired within can occur when something entirely new is present. That’s exciting to our neurochemistry. A fresh thought that aligns your metaphorical spine in a whole new way? That floods your body with energy. Maybe with hope. Perhaps even with that “why am I suddenly laughing?” gas: freedom.
The kind of change in the environment that doesn’t come down from an authority or isn’t tweeted by your more-righteous-than-thou brother is enlivening. Rather than a threat or a yawn, it’s an experience that simply comes out of that old powerful hub of connections with a candy-eating smile on its face.
Maybe not everyone reacts similarly. But whatever crazy sense it makes to you, you begin to seek out places where you can get that feeling, where that sense is shared. Chances are you find them, more and more. A new experience, a new sense of things, does an end run around the answers that used to be the most logical. It pops up beaming with a built-in solution that the previous patterns simply couldn’t put together.
Under such powerful circumstances, the ease and speed of moving beyond an old idea is astounding. Why? We resist our own ideas less than those of others. Especially when everything in our system is doing a happy dance. When no scary signals are dumping “run away” juice into our organs. That’s how we move from “I’m not that” to “Now we’re talkin!”
So… how do we use that knowledge to advance culture? To ease it out of its stuck places and onto stronger foundations? To create culture change?
The first step is to understand that change happens more quickly and more durably when it comes from within, not from external pressure. Peer pressure can certainly move change, but it hasn’t necessarily changed the people moving. Ask yourself: how can you deliver ideas in a way that they don’t land in a well worn groove, but rather in the fresh soil of inspiration?
The second step is to understand that accelerating culture change is not always a linear process and it’s not about logic. The strongest argument in the world may not convince an addict to change habits. (Try it for a year or ten.) The flimsiest argument may convince that person to change substances. But the habit? The pattern? It’s hardwired.
So the next thing to do is to get creative. Knowledge of the physiology of behavior and belief is very useful as a foundation. Now add on a layer of self-observation. Consider your own spidey senses. Ever experience a spontaneous turnaround that rocked your life for the better? What was the one quality that gave it power? How might that apply to your culture change challenge?
The next step is to dive into the basics of psychology, neurobiology, and quantum physics. What? No appetite for long weekends, like at the beach, reading up on the latest discoveries?
Perhaps that means you won’t be so interested in intuiting the relationship between object ground images and culture change based on spontaneous realignment of neural pathways.
Yeah, you’re right. Nobody thinks like that. Except people deeply committed to shifting the ground beneath cultural norms and lucky enough to bring experience to bear on it.
Every situation is different, but shares common threads with others. Just like we’re all very different, but our problems are much the same. Culture change is aided immeasurably by people willing to come to each situation with few preconceived notions about the challenge and a toolkit of resources for navigating human nature.
If you are the type of change agent that wants to move mountains instead of climbing hills, engage people who have moved mountains. Need to mine what you’re doing for the nuggets that power real change? Talk to teams that have excavated new solutions from existing foundations. Hoping to apply existing resources to a new level of results? Look for individuals who don’t let the realities of budget constrain their vision.
Turning a very large ship in a new direction is a matter of where you apply power and how you engineer the rudder. It’s not always simple. It’s not always guaranteed. And it is a process. One that can open space for a shift in the paradigm you’ve been coaxing toward maturity for a long time. And, with a little luck, you will become an agent of culture change, informing what you do ever after.
Monica Worth — President, Voice Associates