This one should be obvious, yet I’m amazed how often it’s overlooked: Organizational change, like personal change, does not occur through resolve. Resolving to be nicer, to give 110 percent, to cooperate, to put aside our differences, to collaborate, to empower our workers, to communicate better — that stuff has a twenty-four-hour half-life at best.

Resolve has no teeth; it’s all gums. Gums have no traction, no grip, no purchase on any real change. Heartfelt resolve amounts to nothing if it doesn’t get translated immediately into changes in formal structures, practical, concrete, irrevocable changes that make it easier or more satisfying to do what’s useful and harder or less satisfying to do what’s harmful.

Often, though, formal structures are mistaken as the problem, as though, if the existing structures aren’t motivating useful behavior, it proves that formal structures are bad.

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup


The problem, however, isn’t structures any more than it’s lack of structures. Thinking that either a disciplining structure or a liberating lack of structure is the answer misses the point. The real answer is whatever combination of structures and freedoms will incline people to do what’s useful instead of what isn’t.

If people in an organization aren’t doing the right thing, we also often assume that the answer is to “educate” them about what they should and shouldn’t do. We assume they don’t do the right thing because they haven’t heard enough gummy talk, so we resolve to tell them more about the importance of collaboration, or empowerment, or giving 110 percent.

Sure, a reminder about what, in principle, they should and shouldn’t do can make a difference, but it’s usually a relatively small one. Pep talks, if imposed consistently, can tip the scale slightly. But imposing pep talks consistently is difficult. We resolve to stay on people about what they should do, but then we don’t follow through — again, because resolve isn’t enough.

And when gumming at people doesn’t mend them, we tend to assume that the people in question are flawed and must be replaced by good people, people like us who know the value of gummy virtues, like giving 110 percent.

Sure, sometimes the problem is the people, but that’s true less often than we suppose. Fact is, if we “good people” were those “bad people,” we would do what they do. We all have our reasons for what we do and don’t do, and, far more than we notice, those reasons aren’t ideas; they’re rewards and punishments, the corralling effects of comfort and discomfort zones. We naturally take the paths of least resistance and most immediate reward. Remembering that fact puts us in the right frame of mind to design effective change. Gum makes new behaviors stick about as well as gum makes anything stick. You can’t mend furniture — or people — with gum.

GUM AT HOME

I was at a corporate retreat last week that brought this Mind Reader’s issue to mind. It also relates to a conversation a week earlier about child rearing, another arena in which we try to get people to do useful things.

By choice, I’m a busy guy. I love my work, and it’s not that I bring it home; it is home. I have a home office. And, as each of my children became old enough not to chew through electrical cords, I looked for opportunities to slip away into my office and do the work I love so much.

Of course, every once in a while one of my kids would become wayward. My natural impulse was to gum them back into compliance. Since I wanted to get back to work, I would attempt expedient once-and-for-all gumming. Intuiting that I wasn’t likely to keep on them, I would gum them loudly and passionately, storming back into my office afterward, thinking I had molded them.

It’s a hidden cost of home offices. Mine puts a major distraction too close at hand for the likes of me and cuts into my parenting. By giving me too easy access to an alternative activity, it erodes my resolve to be a more attentive parent.

For children inclined to do what we parents deem useful, our lack of involvement isn’t usually a serious problem. It becomes a problem only with children who want to do what their parents don’t want them to do. Then it becomes a test of wills, and we distracted parents, no matter how firm our commitment to gummy principles, will lose. By their teens, the kids have learned to weather their parents’ brief gum-thunderstorms.

GUM IN THE WORLD AT LARGE

I’m interested in the future of self-deception. Though being anti-self-deception is a roundly embraced cardinal gummy-virtue, any realistic prediction about self-deception’s future wouldn’t put too much stock in people’s resolve to be honest with themselves. Indeed, resolving not to self-deceive and the gummy declarations that accompany it (“self-deception is an evil that I would never stoop to”) are to my mind among the most dangerous self-deceptions of all.

Me, I like and employ self-deception as much as the next guy. My efforts to control self-deception are concentrated on their end results. I try to deceive myself in useful ways and avoid the self-deceptions that are harmful (see Optimal Illusion). Still, history’s greatest carnages are attributable to runaway un-useful self-deceptions (and a tendency to think that the problem is people who, unlike us, don’t appreciate the value of gummy virtues), so it matters to me whether we’re going to get better or worse at self-deception. I hope it becomes more difficult to self-deceive in un-useful ways, though I suspect it will be easier.

The way to analyze the future of any behavior is, again, to look at the structures. Exceptional people do exceptional things, but the average person always follows the environmental conditions.

For increasing numbers of us, life is getting much harder, and therefore it is getting harder to justify one’s day-to-day performance. If, every day, you fall far short of your expectations, what are you going to do? What’s the alternative to self-loathing? Self-deception, naturally. When the going gets tough, the incentives to self-deceive really get going. When facing who we really are becomes too painful, there’s a shift toward the alternative, a greater incentive to do the alternative — all other things being equal.

But all other things are not equal. I suspect that society is also moving the comfort zone closer within our reach.

A chief alternative to facing one’s own foibles is focusing on someone else’s. I’m noticing the increasing ubiquity of parody. Though racism is in decline, we make up for it with humor about the cluelessness of other people. Parody of other people’s cluelessness can give us insights into our own cluelessness, but I’m guessing that, far more often, its appeal is that it makes us feel clued in, living in a world of fools.

These are by no means the only structural factors worth factoring into predictions about self-deception’s future. Other structural forces are making self-awareness easier and self-deception more difficult. The point I’m making here is less about my prediction than it is about how one would predict. Basically, it boils down to economics broadly defined — beyond money to value in general. People do what’s easy and fun: what costs less in terms of all valued resources combined. They don’t do what’s difficult and un-fun: what costs more in terms of all valued resources combined. Talk is cheap. And gummy talk is the cheapest. Plan accordingly, and you’ll get better results.

It’s not lost on me that this article itself is all talk, some of it quite meta-gummy (gummy about gumminess). But I say it anyway, hopeful that if you find it useful and resolve to keep it in mind, you’ll turn that resolve into structures that help make it easy to turn your resolve into fruitful action before it dies on the vine.