Change in organisations is similar to bi-polar disorder in individuals


This was the shocking insight I discovered recently when reading a research paper published by Bain & Company. According to the authors, the emotional turmoil associated with large scale change inside organisations is a series of moodswings between the extremes of euphoria and depression, created by our collective fear of the unknown, loss aversion, tendency to underestimate challenges and the many biases that colour how we perceive events around us. Surprisingly, it is the same pattern of behaviour that will result in individuals being diagnosed with bi-polar disorder – bouts of euphoria-fuelled intense activity followed by depression-induced procrastination and inactivity. So if individuals can be helped and treated in their affliction – how do you deal with this kind of behaviour when multiplied with people inside organisations?

Oddly, roundabout the same time I discovered this article I found myself in a conversation with long-time friend Mark Earls, author of HERD and I’m Having What She’s Having – two seminal books on mass psychology and behaviour marketing that has earned him a permanent keep on the speaking circuit since. Mark and I were discussing some recent examples of mass psychology out of control and I remembered an excellent talk from SXSW2011, Brands as Patterns, where Marc Shillum, principal at Method and Walter Werzowa, composer of some of the world’s most well-known brand audio mnemonics, discussed how to work with our human tendency to try to find meaning in patterns and signals. Not long after we all found ourselves on a call discussing this – our tendency as grown-ups to want to design definitive, lasting and permanent structures, processes, interfaces as ways to exert control in a world largely out-of-control, fluid, dynamic and defying prediction. If trying to predict human behaviour is ultimately a mug’s game – how come we persist in pretending it isn’t?

Another thought also struck us – children build and pick things apart constantly as a way to understand the world, construction and de-construction is a way to learn, adapt and thrive – yet as grown ups we are desperate to preserve what is on the expense of what can be? We realised that there are numerous examples from diners, anthropology, music, shamans, healing to cities, surfing and play that can teach us how to cope with the inevitable, necessary and relentless change – as individuals and organisations. Yet, there are no final answers, it is a journey where the point is not the destination, but the process of transformation that a journey starts in individuals.

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