Idea management · Implementation

Is change hard because people are stupid?

When I first got involved in projects, I used to get frustrated that people so often did the opposite of what was needed. We would roll out a new tool, and they would go back to manual processing; we would roll out a new process, and they would go back to making errors and causing themselves problems.

I was frustrated because I kept assuming three things to be true:

  • I thought everyone would behave “sensibly” if I gave them “sensible” information;
  • I thought change happened in isolation; and
  • I thought everyone’s interests were aligned to the same goals.

It turned out I was wrong.

The Stupid Water theory

I started to think the reason that change is hard is that people are incredibly resistant to even the most obvious improvements.

One possible reason is that they are evil – they actually wanted to create (and then live in) a worse world rather than a better one. But this didn’t stack up. If people were nice to each other outside of work, why would they turn evil when at work.

So if they are not evil, and yet they resist sensible change, maybe they are not very bright.

In fact a cynical project manager once introduced me to the “Stupid Water” factor to explain things. He said water always finds a way to flow around obstacles – and stupidity always finds a way to flow through any attempt at progress.

His solution was therefore to “Stupid-proof” projects by leaving no way for people to NOT do what we needed.

He lobbied senior management to pressure people into doing what we wanted; he ruthlessly destroyed the old systems and processes so they could not be used; and he rolled out huge amounts of communication and training to support change. 

And it worked – but it also cost a lot in time, money and sometimes relationships. It also assumes that only change that matters is the one we are rolling out.

But unfortunately the projects I am usually on exist in a complex ecosystem of other changes and they rarely have unlimited resources or commitment.


The brute force approach to change can work, but you generally run out of support before you really implement effective change.

The other approach to change is to assess the audience for the change and then align your effort to the areas that will provide the greatest leverage.

So, a lot of change managers I know use something called WIFFM: What’s In If For Me.

Where I used to assume everyone would work towards a common goal by default, modern change managers assume they are are self-interested.  In other words, when you communicate any change you should focus on the impact it has on the person rather than the cost-benefit it has to the organisation.

This is better than brute force change management because it is a little more focussed on the questions people might be asking themselves.

To use WIIFM, you need to ask:

  • Who am I communicating to;
  • How are they impacted; and
  • How can we make that impact positive, communicate the direct benefits to them, or at least make it sound good?

This does help, but can be a little patronising.

I was once on a project to move a business division from the central city to an outlying suburb.  So some people would be working closer to home (WIIFM = short commute).  But others would have to get a bus into the city and then a train to work (WIIFM = ??).  So an eager change manager suggested we communicate that they have a newer gym in the new building and that we will give out a travel allowance for some of the people.

Predictable, people who didn’t get the allowance complained even if they lived right near the new office. And those that did get it were still not very happy. 

So we found another WIIFM – the small team we were moving would now be part of a bigger business division with increased career opportunities and resources. This sounded good to us and we spent a lot of time communicating it. But it turned out people loved their old business team and came up with a disparaging term for the wider business group. This actually made integration harder and there were quite a few resignations as well as a drop in both engagement and productivity.

At the same time one of the managers spent a lot of time with his team explaining the business benefits of the move. He explained that it was a tough call, but a valid one for senior management to make. As a result a couple of his team resigned but even they were OK with it, and the “survivors” quickly got on with making the new office successful.

So what was the gap – WIIFM fell short.

I think WIIFM is a good reminder to think about the impact of change on individuals and to align your communication to your audience.  But it is not the golden rule that some change managers think it is. 

People do want to know how change will impact the.  But they are also often interested in how it impacts customers (really – they do care); how it impacts their friends; what the underlying reasons are for the change and many other aspects.

So, do we need to go back to the “Stupid-water” brute force approach to make any change?

Innovators and resistant laggards

It turns out that academics have done a heap of research into how people interpret new ideas, how they respond and whether they will adopt new practices.

The most famous research talks about the way a person will respond to change generically. So are innovators who love change and some are resistant laggards who will only adopt anything new as a last resort.  So a predictable response is to isolate or remove the resistant laggards (often the most loyal and experienced employees) and to champion the innovators.

In a way this is like assuming the innovators are smart enough to get the change and the resistant laggards are “not so quick on the uptake”. 

Sometimes however, the resistant laggards are actually raising valid concerns or constraints that we need to know in order to make meaningful change. And the innovators often adopt a change for a short time and then move onto something new before you have a chance to “systemise” the change. 

But the real issue is that the same person might be keen on one change and highly resistant to another one.

Studying society

There are less famous, but very useful, theories on change.  And some of the most useful research comes from the study of society.

Research has shown that the way any people interpret any new idea, any action or any event depends on the the “”metaphor” people use to interpret it (email me for references if you want them). For example, if people see the change as an economic one then they will look at the dollar impact, but if they see it as “my mother telling me how to lead my life” then they will resist almost anything.

Typical metaphors in an organisation are “A machine: seeing things as interconnected systems”; “A political system: seeing decisions as a struggle between competing interests”; “A cause: seeing things as providing services to customers or benefits to stakeholders”; or “A culture: seeing the team/organisation as a family or a village”.

This is great for academics because it means there is heaps of room for extra research, papers and conferences. But it sucks for us change managers because it means that the way people will respond to change depends on how they will interpret things, which depends on what metaphor they are using. And it gets worse because people will listen to your sensible message using one metaphor and then wander off and use another metaphor to act.

NLP and other approaches discuss ways to understand the “map” or metaphor that people act on. The theory is that people act on their perception of the world rather than on reality. And their perceptions are based not only on their observations but their biases, relationships, values and all kinds of things. 

So to encourage one person to support an idea, we need to understand how it will fit into their existing map of the world. Thus, we find that people are not stupid, they are just acting on a different interpretation to reality than we are.  This sucks because it means that successful communication is based on understanding their map rather than just making our message clear and logical.

And it gets worse with groups. 

Structuration theory suggests that any society is made up of the decisions and actions taken by the members of that society.

These decisions and actions form a pattern that then makes up the “group map” used by the members of the society have make sense of things. 

Decisions lead to actions, that are enabled or constrained by rules (what can be done, what is expected) and resources (those things that enable or constrain action). 

But that the decisions and actions are heavily influenced by the rules that govern that society and the resources available. So far so good, but the rules and resources in play depend on the actions and decisions made by the people in the group. So the whole loop begins again – great for grad students looking for new topics for research papers and great for conferences. 

And in the real world, an understanding of all this theory helps too.  Any change we want to make must either be consistent with the existing rules of behaviour and the existing resources available to the team – or it must change those rules and resources.

This is why the “stupid-water” brute force approach to change works. It relentlessly removes rules and resources that oppose the change and replaces them with rules and resources that drive the change. Thus change is possible if we have the resources and commitment to ram it through an organisation.

This is also why some changes happen easily (they match existing resources and rules) and others fail or are nearly impossible (they require new resources, or run up against existing rules).

However, we can vastly simplify things but getting to understand the existing map of the world the team has and the resources available to them.  Then, by understanding how these interact we can look at how they need to change to make our change successful (or how we need to adapt our change to the existing map and resources).  Then rather than applying brute force to the change we can focus our effort where we can gain the most leverage.

In my next article I will talk about one way to assess a group and align messages and change “interventions” to make changes stick instead of being reversed as soon as you turn your back.


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