Why change (usually) fails

Written by Wyseminds · 7 min read >

Spend 5 minutes on Instagram and you would believe that just by being focused, mindfully Zen, practising positive thinking and eating healthy you can achieve anything. 

If it is that easy, then why do we see:

  • 23% of people give up on their New Year’s Resolutions in the first week, more than 33% before the end of January and 81% give up within two years.  
  • Only 20% of people who lose weight manage to stay that way for at least a year, and only 5% of people haven’t relapsed after 5 years.
  • In business, McKinsey research shows that only 26% percent of change initiatives are successful at delivering and sustaining benefits over time.

Deep down we know a darker, more inconvenient truth: real change, even the kind that seems to succeed at first, usually fails.

This is kinda depressing, especially if you want to lead your organisation into a new phase of growth. Because of course growth is all about change, and you cannot grow without changing. 

I am active in the field of change as a change manager, trainer and coach, and I believe that our time on earth is limited and therefore too precious to waste on changes that are doomed to fail. So let’s shift the odds a bit more in our favour, and look at what is going on here… why do we aspire to change, but fail at it so easily? 

How change looks to the human brain

From the perspective of the western world, many of our basic human needs are covered. 

  • The struggle for existence and survival is over for most of us, we are doing well. 
  • We have a roof over our head, a fridge full of food and wonderful health care (that we like to complain about). 
  • We are living in the age of instant gratification, one could say that we have arrived, we are there! 

And at the same time there is this almost endless list of trends to improve your life and happiness. In come the gurus, commercials and glossy magazines. This is a sort of change paradox.

If we have a quick look at evolution and the human brain we see that it makes perfect sense. We can divide the human brain in roughly three layers. (Reality is much more complex and I wouldn’t advise brain surgery based on the following schematic, but for our purpose here it will do just fine.)  

Let’s start with the first and oldest layer of our brain, the brainstem, nicknamed the “reptilian” brain. 

  • This part controls the basic functions we need to stay alive: breathing, temperature, heartbeat, digestion and our fight or flight response. 
  • This is also the part of the brain where our habitual behaviour ends up; the things we do without having to think about it, like riding a bike, putting on your socks, having a smoke – even crossing your arms. 

Whether you like it or not, automatic behaviour needs very little to become activated. Even if the effect is negative or damaging, it keeps on repeating.

The second layer is called the limbic system, or “mammalian” brain. 

  • This part of the brain is the domain of emotions; anger, happiness, fear and sadness. 
  • Its main driver is punishment and reward. If it feels good the limbic brain wants more of it and when it doesn’t feel nice the limbic brain wants to stop it. 
  • The limbic brain doesn’t care if something is healthy or not. Sugar is unhealthy, but tastes good so you want more of it. Hitting your head hurts so you try to avoid it.  

These two brain layers work at an unconscious level, without language or words, so they can’t ‘think’. Reptilians and lower mammals don’t think about what they are doing in a conscious way. A chameleon doesn’t have sex because it wants to have a baby chameleon, it does it out of instinct. Mammals do it out of instinct and because it feels good. So animals do not have the urge to survive, they have urges and therefore they survive.  

The last and the newest part of our brain is called the neocortex or “human” brain. This part of our brain contains language and the ability to think. 

  • The behaviour here is always in service of your own mindset. If your mindset is pleasure you eat as much tasty stuff as possible, have a nice drink with it and don’t worry about the calories. If your framework is slim and healthy, you mind the calories, drink enough water and exercise regularly. 
  • You could see the neocortex as a luxury layer that only developed in human evolution when the basic need for survival and continuity of the species were taken care of. 
  • This layer can postpone gratification, think of the path towards it and can give words to it. 
  • This layer has a concept of time, past and future and is able to create stories and social constructs like religion, philosophy, politics, finance, or the concept of ‘growing your business’. 
  • It has concepts of good and bad and the idea that things can be improved. So this is actually the place where our conscious ideas for change originate. 

Why is this a problem?

On a day to day basis the different parts of the brain work together in harmony to get you through the day without too much trouble. There are some quirks though that are good to know, especially when it comes to change.

1: Large parts of your life are executed on auto-pilot. From an evolutionary perspective brain efficiency is very important. Because the neocortex is slow and can only execute one task at a time properly, a lot of daily stuff is being processed by the lower, unconscious, levels of the brain. The lower systems are much faster, have created routines and make use of pattern recognition to run a large part of your daily activities. Only when something breaks the pattern and cannot be handled on auto-pilot will the conscious brain kick in. And that’s a good thing. Think back to this morning when you were getting dressed. You probably don’t remember what sock you put on first, or which leg you put in your pants first. That is because your subconscious systems took care of that. Imagine how tiring it would be if you had to actively run all those parts of your daily routine.

2: Related to that, the limbic system is extremely fast, it processes information 200 times faster than the cognitive part of our brain. Sometimes it has already made a decision, often based on emotional factors or the basic feel good filter, without you even being aware of it. Your cognitive brain then makes up the rational story around it afterwards. Even creating filters or cognitive biases that allow information through that support your decision and blocking information that opposes it.

3: The last quirk to highlight here, because it has a big impact on change, is stress. From an evolutionary perspective stress is the body’s reaction to a possible life-threatening situation. Your nervous system is wired to automatically revert to more efficient processing methods to keep the organism safe. In other words, the brain will downshift from neocortex involvement to rely more heavily on the survival and emotional processing part of the brainstem and limbic system. Even though most stressful situations nowadays have nothing to do with life or death situations, we regress to older, less effective, software nonetheless.   

Organisations are just groups of people

So by now you are probably wondering – this is all great, but how does it help me lead my organisation through growth and change?

Organisational change is just lots of individual change put together.

Ed Catmull in his book ‘Creativity Inc’ has an important insight; that we respond to big problems and small problems very differently despite the fact that they share many similar characteristics. The same can be said for people vs organisational change; we have placed these two very similar phenomena into different buckets, but they are in fact the same thing. Organisational change happens one person at a time, and understanding how to navigate this can improve our chances of making successful change. 

For this I would like to share the formula for durable change. 

dΔ = F(iD x D x iA)

Durable change (or delta dΔ) is the function (F) of internal drive, multiplied by discipline, multiplied by internal attribution. 

  • (iD) Internal drive is suffering from the current situation and seeing a solution. 
  • (D) Discipline is the ability to resist old habits and social pressure. 
  • (iA) Internal attribution is holding yourself accountable for success and failure and not shifting the blame out to others. 

You can only achieve durable change if you score on all three elements of this!


It’s ok…let me give you a personal example. At the beginning of the pandemic lockdown I had this thought pop-up “I really should work out more” and that it might be a good idea to actively work on my condition. Especially since I was spending large parts of my day sitting at the kitchen table or on the couch. Strangely enough at the same time my Facebook and Instagram feed started overflowing with ads for home workout equipment and instructional videos. 

So when I put the “I should really work out more” as the durable change I wanted to achieve in the formula, this is what I found:

Internal drive: it is mainly a neocortex thought, you can recognize it because it starts with “I really should”. I did not have any actual problem or pain and at the same time there was no real pleasure to be found. Let’s say I scored a 3 out of 10.  

Discipline: Sitting on the couch is nice and relaxed there bingeing Netflix series with my partner (social pressure). My past experience with working out doesn’t show a great track record either. So let’s put a 2 out of 10 here. 

Internal attribution: Well since the gym was closed during lock down and the bootcamp club stopped doing sessions, there wasn’t much I could do… right? No one else was giving me the opportunity – Another low score, maybe a 2.

So that is a pretty terrible result if you are looking for durable change. The three layers of my brain are not aligned and are not helping out here, my neocortex wants something that is not supported by my limbic or brainstem at all. So what to do, give up or try to engineer and fix some of the flaws in my formula…

So here is what I did:

On internal drive:

  • I called on a friend with a lot of workout discipline. Having the workouts as a fun moment of catching up, but also not wanting to let the other person down by not showing up, creating some pleasure and pain for the mammalian brain. 
  • I used a smart watch to help set some realistic targets. Triggering dopamine release whenever I hit a target. I could also have posted a workout picture to social media and got little dopamine hits with each ‘like’. 

On discipline:

  • Helped out my discipline by having a fixed schedule that is tied by an agreement to another person. 
  • After a while the endorphin that is being released creates a new addiction supporting the creation of a new pattern and routine.

On internal attribution:

  • Take a deep look in the mirror and acknowledge there was still a lot I could do to create a workout routine that did not depend on external factors.  

By doing this I actually aligned the different layers of my brain, scoring higher on the formula for durable change. I can tell, because I’m sticking with it – it got me over the one week hump, the one month hump, and because of that I made it over the two year mark.

Applying this to your organisation

The same formula can be applied to business change as well. Durable business change is more likely if the team; 

  • feels genuine pain, or desires the pleasure they could gain
  • can resist the temptation to fall back into old ways, and
  • understands that the change is their responsibility, both individually and collectively.

So to summarise, here are 4 elements for succeeding in durable change:

  1. Engineer for success: use the change formula and the knowledge of the brain to see how you, your team, and your organisation score. Fix the weak parts of your formula!
  2. Stack for success: Align the different layers of your brain, and your team’s brains, to increase the chances of success.
  3. Create new habits in small steps: set mini targets you can collectively reach to build a new habit and release dopamine. 
  4. Be brutally honest: why fool yourself? Save yourself the trouble and energy of embarking on hopeless change endeavours. Pick the ones where you can bend the odds in your favour.

I wish you all the best on your future change endeavours and let me know how you are doing!

Bonus tip

Remember that you as a leader will have been considering and familiarising yourself with change long before your team has. As you lead them through the change, remember that you will be looking at a change process that you have already been through mentally, but your team’s first experience will be actively living it. Meet them where they are, connect, and start out on your joint change journey together.

A guest blog by Arjen Hoven


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