A biological study on animal behavior observed that “when a territory holder is challenged by a rival, the owner almost always wins the contest.” The study furthermore revealed that, “animals, including people, fight harder to prevent losses than to achieve gains.” This phenomenon was extrapolated on in Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast & Slow”, which studies the nature of thought, including the impact of loss aversion.
In his book Mr. Kahneman uses this study to shed light on peoples’ and organizations’ resistance to change. In essence the book illustrates that change creates winners and losers, and that those who are in a position to lose from change will dig in and fight harder to prevent those losses than the people who stand to gain from change will fight to ensure that the changes succeed.
You can see this dynamic repeatedly played out in corporations, organizations and in general culture. Simply look at the U.S. health care debate, or the Film, Music & Print Publishing industries who are having such difficulty embracing digital distribution platforms. In all cases entrenched parties are fighting feverishly to keep the status quo even in the face of clear need for change.
This is why change is so difficult to enact and why innovation is so hard to come by. It often takes a state where everything is almost lost to create a cataclysm for change. The U.S. auto industry is a testament to that.At some point almost every organization goes through a need for change in order to drive growth and innovation. So how, in the face of an entrenched opposition with biologically induced odds of success, can change be enacted?
The Importance of Apples
Over a decade ago a small group of elderly care professionals wanted to advocate systemic change in nursing home culture. They sought to transform the prevalent attitude of nursing homes as a setting for decline, to a place where the elderly can go to thrive. To do so they needed to shift from a rigid, institutionalized and regulation guided culture to one that was guided by the emotional needs of the patients. It was a shift that required flexibility at the individual home and caretaker level; essentially the direct opposite of rigid, institutionalized and highly regulated.
To enact the envisioned change the group did many tactical things, such as creating a case for adoption, providing a toolkit for execution and developing a resource center for education. However, the most transformative weapon the group leveraged was the ability to change the stories of the culture.
Margaret Thacker worked at a nursing home where one Monday morning someone delivered a bushel of apples to her doorstep. Thinking of the new culture her mind turned over all of the activities, from applesauce to apple pie, that these apples could provide as a way to enhance the daily routine of her residents.Upon bringing the apples into the home, the entrenched regulation driven culture quickly became apparent when Margaret was told that she couldn’t use the apples because they weren’t FDA approved. So there the apples sat until a few days later, when a group of executives from corporate visited the home to review progress against the new cultural initiative.
By all appearances the home resembled how the culture should look based on the suggestions in the toolkit, but had the approach changed to match the appearance? The bushel of apples said it hadn’t.After the meetings concluded the Corporate Director of Dining Services, upon seeing the bushel, inquired about whether there were some “apple activities” planned for the week. In response Margaret said that there weren’t since the apples lacked the necessary FDA approval. Historically the conversation would have concluded, but in the spirit of the new culture the Director took an apple out of the basket, washed it, and in taking a bite exclaimed that they seemed like perfectly good apples to her, perfect for cooking and eating.
With that simple gesture the power of entrenched thought was cracked and the story that went through the organization of why apples couldn’t be used due to FDA regulations was transformed into stories about all of the positive activity generated by a bushel of apples. If you change the stories that are told within a culture then the culture itself changes. It’s apple seed innovation.