This isn’t going to be easy

So you think that getting people onto bicycles, walking, public transport, and out of their cars is going to be easy? You think that it’s just a case of getting the campaign slogan right? You think that if only you could find the right facts and figures you’d persuade them? That if they knew how much healthier they would be they’d change?

Maybe if there was just a bit more money? Then we’d be able to run a bigger campaign, buy more advertising space, write more reports, do more research, write more guidelines? Maybe if instead of teaching 10 children to ride a bike we could teach 100. Or 1,000. Or 10,000. Or 100,000?

Maybe if we had 10 people writing on Twitter about cycling and walking? Or 100 people?

Well you’re wrong.

Or to put it more subtly, more of all these things might be necessary, but more of these things won’t be sufficient.

We’re not a widget manufacturer trying to build a better widget. If we were, life would probably be simple. More money, more people, more resources, these things would be sufficient. We’d know roughly what a ‘better’ widget would look like. We could bring in expert widget consultants. We could provide additional training to our widget designers. We could create more prototypes. We could ask widget users what new innovations they need.

But that’s not what we’re doing here. We’re working on something a great deal more difficult. In fact, this stuff is so difficult that there’s a whole industry of people studying and writing about the fact that change can be difficult.

Different parts of that industry use different terms, but you may hear phrases like ‘adaptive challenge‘, ‘wicked problem’, ‘social change’, ‘system change’, ‘culture shift’…

…or simply “change”.

And then there are ideas about why change is difficult, and how to make it happen. People talk about ’emergence’, ‘collective intelligence’, and ‘systems thinking’ (just a few examples from many).

For the purposes of this blog I’m generally going to standardise, referring usually to ‘social and cultural change’ and ‘adaptive’ challenges/change. Many of the other terms would be just as suitable, and there’s a good chance that someone will decide that these aren’t the best words to use, or that I’ll slip up once or twice, but for the sake of simplicity let’s get over that.

So take a step sideways for a a moment, and think about other social changes. Think, for example, about sexism or racism. People have been working on these things for a very long time. We’re not new to this. Lots and lots of interventions have been tried. We have laws which limit and guide how people speak. We even have laws making a whole load of things illegal.

It’s the law that men and women should be paid equally for equal work.

Gender equality (arguably) has improved, but all of this effort didn’t fix everything did it?

So here’s a question. If I gave you a million pounds could you fix sexism? What about a hundred million? A billion? Several billion? Could you buy gender equality with that? No I don’t think so either.

We’re not building widgets – we’re seeking to change how the world works – we want to change ‘how things are done around here’. We’re seeking to change the whole ‘system’.

‘How things are done around here’ is a very powerful thing. It’s established practice. It’s ‘normality’. It’s even identity and belief and belonging.

Here are a few key ideas about this kind of change:

Adaptive change isn’t open to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures¹.

Technical challenges can be tackled within the existing system, by those authorised, using ordinary expertise and skill. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are those that require new attitudes, new thinking, new habits, experiments, and adjustments from numerous people.

Complex human systems fight change

A network of people in an organisation or society works like a system. The interaction of the people produces a result equivalent to the system itself working to oppose change. The system will work to protect certain changes. If you work for change the system will
fight to neutralise the threat that this represents. It will find the most effective defence – attacking, diverting, marginalising or seducing you (see Heifetz & Linsky). It will try to inoculate itself against change.

If you can’t see how effective the system is being in opposing change then you’re either not having any effect (so there’s nothing to oppose), or you’re not looking hard enough.

The system will be one step ahead.

It is possible to make change happen, but no one single step forward will be the key step, and every step has unhelpful consequences. The system will find ways to minimise the effect of any particular effort (policy, campaign, activity, initiative, intervention, etc). Your effort is most at risk at the point when you think you’ve got the problem sorted. The system will already have worked out how to minimise the change that takes place.

This kind of change cannot be ‘implemented’ top down.

System change, cultural and social change, adaptive change, happens because individual people begin to behave in a different way, and when individual people step out of line and refuse to  do things ‘the way things are done around here’. As more people do things differently, the balance starts to change. The more the balance changes the easier it is for others to join up with the new order. Eventually the balance tips towards the new way of doing things, and it is then easier to behave in the new way rather than the old.

Top down efforts to try to impose change usually produce only a cosmetic effect. There’s no actual change to ‘how things are done around here’ – only surface level change. Changes in policy. Changes in language. Promises of future change.

There will always be people who refuse to change, and others who are quite prepared to step out of line if reasons are sound.

In the past I’ve worked alongside other consultants who refer to ‘fairies’ and ‘goblins’ as shorthand.  ‘Fairies’ are the people who are light on their feet and inclined to do things a new way should there be good reason. Fairies don’t mind so much that they aren’t doing things ‘the way things are done around here’. ‘Goblins’ on the other hand are those people who are prepared to argue that black is white. These are the people who are so determined not to change that they’ll stick to the old ways even when most have adopted the new. Of course a high proportion of people are neither of these things – perhaps being more or less fairy or more or less goblin – a mixture of both.

Fairies are very valuable in adaptive/social change situations.

There is little point in spending time trying to convert the goblins.

It’s of little relevance whether the fairies and goblins are people with official power or not. We’re not looking for a top down action, so it’s numbers and influence that count.

Adaptive change is a recruitment exercise.

Because adaptive change, cultural change, social change, is about ‘how things are done around here’ it can happen despite policy and despite rules or regulations. Often rules, laws, and policies actually come along after the hard work is done.

Because this kind of change relies on establishing a new way of doing things, a new ‘how things are done around here’; and because we’re asking people to step out of line, to join a new order; the job we face is mostly about recruitment. We need to find the fairies and help them to do things differently. We need to have the nearly-fairies notice the fairies and join in. And so on.

There are many ways to work on this – but considering it as ‘recruitment’ rather than ‘persuasion’ can be helpful.

And storytelling is a key tool. I’ll write about that another time.

This isn’t about getting people to cycle, it’s much bigger.

Very importantly, we fool ourselves if we think that ‘how things are done around here’ is just about individual people choosing to cycle or walk. We do need this to happen, but that’s a small part of the change we’re looking for. ‘How things are done around here’ includes how roads are built, how cities are designed, what’s expected of our children, how professional skill is judged, what are markers of social success, where shops and offices are located, where we live, who we’re friends with, what clothes we wear, the habits we have, and even how we define our identity.



¹ Phrase based on text from: Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading | Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky | Harvard Business School Press; 2002

See also:


  1. I don’t want to make a change. I just want to build real cycling infrastructure for the people who already cycle.
    Once we get high quality cycle infrastructure that allows regular people to ride, more people will chose to ride without programs and social incentives.
    And as they start riding, others will see and they’ll try it out.
    If you give people an actual choice, not the car or nothing infrastructure we have now, and people will change themselves without outside interference.
    One that starts, we’ll have a foundation for approaching the rest of the people and explaining why what they’re seeing their neighbors doing is a good thing. but nothing will happen if we don’t have a safe place for it to happen in.


    1. So the question is… how are we going to get high quality infrastructure built? This is a political task.. to be carried out in a world which doesn’t understand that vision, and which doesn’t have a clue what ‘high quality’ looks like… Which is where this gets complicated.

      Liked by 1 person

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