Why humans resist change
It’s not natural for humans to be comfortable with change. In fact, we take comfort from routine. There are many, mainly scientific and neurobiological reasons for this but much of it has to do with our basal ganglia - the part of the brain responsible for wiring habits. This cluster of nerve cell bodies is in charge of functions such as automatic or routine behaviours that we are familiar with and make us feel good. Any type of change to these habits can go against the neural pathways that have become automatic to us. This is why it is unfortunately natural for us to fall back on our automatic behaviours and resist change, e.g. give up a diet after a few days or take back up smoking.
But, due to a global pandemic, we’ve all been forced to change. One day we were using public transport and not washing our hands and the next day we weren’t. Changing behaviours like this can generally take anywhere from 18 days to 254 days to become habit (not the 21 day myth you often hear about). And we did it overnight.
"Which goes to show, we can change if we really want to, or if we’re going to be shamed on Instagram when we don’t."
This was down to two powerful forces working together, social accountability and productive shame, because people generally want to behave in a way that’s accepted by their peers. Which goes to show, we can change if we really want to, or if we’re going to be shamed on Instagram when we don’t.
Luckily as an industry and a discipline focused on people and human behaviour we’re somewhat obsessed with change. Of course, a large part of what we do is around change: changing tastes, change in habits, being ready for change, predicting change and so on. It’s probably safe to say that if you’ve been at a conference, a networking event or even a Rothco strategy presentation in the last 12 months that there’s been some talk of the rate of change in the world. And while we have to a certain degree seen massive change in our industry over the past 10 years such as the digital transformation or the powerful influence of emerging generations, the latest change we have been experiencing is unprecedented. And we really mean it this time.
Healthcare professionals are comparing Covid-19 to the Spanish Influenza (H1N1 virus) of 1918 and a lot of industry professionals are calling this the biggest global event since World War Two. Unless you or someone on your team has experience in dealing with such crises, we are all entering this period of uncertainty a little bit blind. Nobody can say with any degree of confidence what our world will look like post Covid-19, however we can prepare ourselves for it.
How to navigate change
One way of doing this is to let go of language such as 'when this is over' and 'back to normal'. We’re not going back. And at the risk of sounding grandiose, life has fundamentally changed.
"There is nothing ‘normal’ about the world fundamentally shifting and the sooner we can let go of that, the better."
Matthias Horx, a German futurologist, who specialises in re-gnosis (a method of predicting the future by looking back from the future) is pretty blunt about this. When asked when things will go back to normal, his answer: "Never". We’re not going back. We are experiencing what is known as a bifurcation - a historical moment when the future changes direction, or a deep crisis. There is nothing 'normal' about the world fundamentally shifting and the sooner we can let go of that, the better.
Also, the word normal is a bigger issue and requires a lot more discussion than we have time for here. It’s a subjective word and founded on relativity. It suggests that there is a collective sense of what normalcy is and any deviance from this is insupportable. One person’s normal is another person’s not normal. In very few instances is it acceptable to use the word normal, I’m ok with doctors using the term to describe blood tests for example, but it shouldn’t be used to describe people, values or how we choose to live our lives.
When we use the term 'the new normal' we’re actually avoiding any acknowledgment of the real change that exists within it. What it’s also doing is making this life, that we’re currently living, feel temporary or not real. As if we’re going to emerge from this moment in time and we will feel normal again. A light switch moment of sorts. This is a pretty natural thing to do, it’s human behaviour. We are naturally afraid of the future because it represents change, and for a whole host of reasons - primarily, anxiety of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of success (yes it’s a real thing) and a more primitive fear, the fear of death - we do our best to avoid thinking about it.
Currently, when I think of the future or a post-Covid world I automatically begin to worry for the health of my family. I get frustrated at the thought of not being able to travel. I worry about job security and the shutters closing on a lot of main streets around the country.
However, if we use Horx’s method of re-gnosis, things might look a little different. Because of the fears mentioned above when we look into the future we can generally only see the danger and problems piling up, he calls them 'horror futures'. Horx believes that if we can forecast from the future we can include ourselves and our inner selves in the future, and therefore our perception of change becomes a lot more positive. At a neurological level, this version of forecasting replaces adrenaline with dopamine. We replace a fear or flight hormone with good endorphins that make us curious and even excited for the future.
For example, imagine the world in November 2020. Imagine sitting in your favourite coffee shop or your favourite pub (I personally will use McGettigans), and thinking back on this time right now. We’re going to reflect on how even though we were isolated we found a new appreciation for togetherness as families and communities and we’ll discuss at length how seamless (at times!) the shift to a digital work environment really was. We’ll be amazed at how technology assisted our lives in lockdown, but how it was parks, the sea, music, artists and bikes that got us through it. We might even be surprised that because of coronavirus, politicians are facing a period of reckoning, particularly the likes of Trump and Johnson. And that thankfully, science has regained the power and credibility it always deserved. We’ll be astonished at how resilient our economy is and proud about how 'supporting local' has moved from ideology to practice.
"And I believe that is because we’ve already changed. The bifurcation has taken place and the projection of our future has fundamentally changed."
This version of the future isn’t too difficult to imagine is it? It’s not that worrying or something we should be frightened of. And it doesn’t feel like something our basal ganglia will reject. And I believe that is because we’ve already changed. The bifurcation has taken place and the projection of our future has fundamentally changed. And if we can stop waiting for things to 'go back to the way they were' or for life to feel 'normal' again we’ll realise that we can start moving forward, not to the 'new normal', but to a post-Covid world.
Trying to find comfort in change is difficult and it’s clear that there are a lot of internal and external forces that make it difficult for us to do this. But if we can start with these two things:
Letting go of language (such as 'the new normal') that is ambiguous and only disguises the change actually taking place.
Using planning tools such as re-gnosis that allow us to forecast more positively and avoid 'horror futures'.
Our transition through change, as people and organisations into a post-Covid world, will be just that little bit easier.