Alex Zimmerman

Alex Zimmerman

The Crisis of Perception and Barriers to Change

stones, barrier, dam

In the previous blog post I laid out the case for why I think it’s clear that we need to change the way we perceive the world and the way we do things. Change is the operative word here.

How do we change and what are the barriers to change?

There is a vast body of organizational management literature, both academic and popular, on the subject of personal and organizational change, and many companies and consultants (me included at one time) make their living from advising others on this topic. Much of my professional career required me to try to persuade people and organizations to change the way they do things or the way that their institutions are structured in order to understand new threats/opportunities and to take appropriate action in response. In the organizations I have worked in and worked for, almost all of the change I have advocated for has been as result of slow-moving, diffuse, non-personal threats. While I am no expert, I have learned something about the barriers and the drivers to implementing change.

I think we have to distinguish between two kinds of externally-imposed change. On the one hand there is change necessitated by immediate and obvious threats, like that posed by the threat of invasion and bombing during war, or the threat of severe illness or death by the current COVID-19 crisis. On the other hand, there is change necessitated by less immediate threats, like the climate crisis, where the impacts are comparatively more diffuse in time and space, less personal.

In the former, it seems to be relatively easy to get people to understand, and therefore embrace, the need for change. In the latter, it is much more difficult. For the remainder of this discussion when I refer to change, I will be assuming it is the latter, the slow-moving, diffuse threats.

My hypothesis is this:

At least some of the baffling lack of rapid and decisive action to address the climate crisis can be explained by how we react individually and collectively to the need for permanent change. This is due to three problems:

  1. The nature of messaging and the internet, the primary source of information for most people now, which is a problematic way of spreading useful or correct new information and countering old, harmful information about the need for change.
  2. People, at an individual level, are generally resistant to change.
  3. Most organizations are structurally organized on outdated ideas, are static and resistant to change.
  1. The Nature of Messaging and the Internet as a Problematic Means of Spreading Useful Information

I think that we in the science and environmental community have been guilty of believing that if only we get the message right on the climate change threat, then people will understand the urgency and act, as that is how it used to work. But a message is only useful insofar as it gets people to act, to change what they are doing. Clearly, the ever-increasing volume and stridency of factual messages of impending doomsday, delivered through traditional channels, have not resulted in sufficient action.

Consider where the evidence for the climate crisis comes from, how the message about it has been delivered and, crucially, when it started being delivered. Traditionally, scientists provided their data, couched in appropriate terms of the limits of it reliability, and advice to policy makers, who deliberated using traditional governance models and then, hopefully, acted. Policy makers traditionally had access to better data, better information, than the general public and so, when they acted on that advice, they usually had public support as the public did not have access to the same or credible alternative messages. The first internationally coordinated message on climate change came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), representing the international science community. It was established in 1988, and produced its first assessment in 1990. The World Wide Web, which allowed non-geeks to access the internet, was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 but the first web browser wasn’t released until 1991, a year after the first IPCC assessment. Although slow to start, by the end of the decade, the internet dominated public information sources. So, we have a situation where the channels and messaging for policy-makers were established in the pre-internet, pre-social media era, and still persist, but where the public, and some policy-makers, no longer rely on those channels or that form of messaging for decision-making.

We know that the internet generally, and social media in particular, is where most people turn to first for information. There have been a number of studies on this, but Mansour and Francke capture it quite well “Previous studies have shed some light on social media platforms and their perceived role as potential and useful sources of information, and found that such platforms are often a preferred source for information seeking, as opposed to formal information channels and search engines (Duggan et al., 2015; Lampe, Vitak, Gray and Ellison, 2012; Morris, Teevan and Panovich, 2010)”[i]

The internet and social media excel at making huge volumes of information instantly accessible to everyone. This has led to a kind of lowest-common-denominator democratization of the perceived value of information on the internet where every piece of information is as good as another. There are no good mechanisms in either search engines or social media for determining what is valid and what is not, unlike traditional sources of information on which decisions were based.

The difficulty is not just with social media, but with the very design of most of the internet’s information seeking mechanisms, which are a poor way of spreading useful or correct new information and countering old or harmful information. David Rowan, editor of Wired U.K., writes: “While it embraces nodes dedicated to propagating a rich seam of information, because the Internet’s governing algorithms are optimized to connect us to what they believe we already looking for, we tend to retreat into familiar and comfortable self-reinforcing silos – idea chambers whose feeds, tweets and updates inevitably echo our preexisting prejudices and limitations. The wider conversation, a precondition for a healthy intellectual culture, isn’t getting through.” Rowan is writing about this failing of the internet generally, but it is particularly apropos to the problem of getting people to pay attention to the facts underlying the climate crisis.

I think it is also a problem inherent in the nature of truth vs misinformation, lies and rumour. Getting the truth out is like trying to pour honey – it’s sticky and slow, precisely because it requires verification and fact-checking, whereas, like pouring water, misinformation, rumours and lies spread quickly and easily, because there are no internal barriers to propagation, replication and amplification.

  1. Individuals are resistant to change.

It has been my personal experience throughout my career that a majority of people are constitutionally resistant to change. Personal observations may not, of course, necessarily be true. For evidence, I turned to descriptions and characterizations of people as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) personality inventory. You may or may not be familiar with it. It is an instrument that operationalizes the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung.  As it notes on the website “The essence of the theory is that much seemingly random variation in the behavior is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment”, and that preferences will also differ between introverted and extroverted personalities. The instrument works by analyzing responses to a questionnaire about those preferences, and then classifies individuals into one of 16 distinctive personality types. It is more complex and sophisticated than that in practice, but you get the idea. I have used this instrument in several organizational settings and found its characterizations to be remarkably accurate, at least judging from its descriptions of people I know well (including myself).

I went through the Type descriptions on the MBTI website and looked at the description of that type’s reaction to stress, in particular (as one necessary precursor for change in my view), and looked for any direct mention of how people of that Type reacted to change. I plugged these into a spreadsheet and then characterized each type’s receptivity to change as either For Change, Against Change or Neutral. I then looked at the distribution of the MBTI types in the general population – they are not distributed equally. Pairing the characterizations with the frequency distribution in the population, I then derived the fraction of the population that could be considered “For Change” (28.5%), “Against Change” (70.0%), and “Neutral” (1.8%). This level of precision is likely unwarranted, as it is only one person’s characterization, and others may score differently, but it does indicate to me that a significant majority of the population is generally resistant to change.

What then, does this mean? I think that any externally-imposed change in reaction to slow-moving threats must take this fundamental change-averse tendency into consideration. Richard Beckhard, management theorist, MIT adjunct professor and organizational development consultant, recognized this when he postulated, in the 1950’s, that one of the key aspects of the nature and functioning of organizations is that “people support what they help create”. This idea is become so pervasive that one company even claims to have trademarked it. Despite this phrase’s ubiquity, in my own work I have, in fact, found this notion to largely be true. The basic requirement is that if you are going to impose long-lasting change on people, then you have to allow them meaningful input into how that change is designed and implemented, so that they will feel a sense of ownership of the change and will more readily work to ensure it happens.

This then, is the intersection between individuals and organizations, which is where the work of societal change takes place.

  1. Organizations Are Ill-Suited to Initiate and Implement Change

Most of the work to maintain modern technological society is done within the context of people working in organizations; academic institutions, private companies, non-profits, health care institutions, religious organizations, militaries, governments (The exception may be child care and rearing, which is still mostly unpaid work done by women, day-care centres notwithstanding ).

Most organizations are modeled or structured on other organizations that are seen to be successful, whether that structure is the reason for their success or not. This is known in the literature as “institutional isomorphism”. However, without the tacit knowledge and context of meaning behind the original structure, it is difficult for the new organization to be as successful as the one they are modeled on.

Digging deeper, Gareth Morgan, as cited by Capra (Capra, Fritjof. (2002). The Hidden Connections), argues that “The medium of organization and management is a metaphor. Management theory and practice is shaped by a metaphorical process that influences virtually everything we do.” Crucially, he argues that the main metaphors are organizations that are seen as:

  • Machines (focus on command, control and efficiency)
  • Systems of government (focus on conflict of interests and power)
  • Cultures (focus on values and beliefs)
  • Organisms (focus on development and adaptation)
  • Brains (focus on organizational learning)

I don’t know if anyone has ever done a credible survey of organizations to determine which category they fall into, but my own experience leads me to believe that the majority of organizations fall into the first two, with a few in the third and almost none in the last two.

Now, neither machine-like or government-like organizations are wells-suited to implementing change.

Beckhard, (with David Gleicher), according to, developed a “Formula for Change” in organizations. Three factors must be present for meaningful organizational change to take place. The formula (D x V x F > R) proposes that the combination of organizational dissatisfaction, vision for the future and the possibility of immediate, tactical action must be stronger than the resistance within the organization in order for meaningful change to occur:

D = Dissatisfaction with the status quo;

V = Vision of what is possible;

F = First, concrete steps that can be taken towards the vision.

R = Resistance. If any of the above factors are missing or weak, then you’re going to get resistance.

I suggest that most machine-like organizations, which includes most private companies (structured around the industrial revolution idea of division of labour based on skills and knowledge), are adapted to and focused on delivering the status quo, and that dissatisfaction with the status quo, from the perspective of the climate crisis, has not yet been sufficient to overcome resistance, nor is there adequate vision of what is possible in a post-fossil-fuel, ecologically robust world. In addition, many people do not understand or give credibility to the concrete steps that can be taken toward the new vision.

Government is especially problematic as most governments in western democracies are structurally adversarial (i.e. based on some variation of the Westminster form of parliament, where the government and opposition benches are placed literally two sword lengths apart) rather than collaborative. While there can be plenty of dissatisfaction with the status quo, this model of government is not designed to seek shared meaning or to agree on a common vision of what is possible.

In the third blog post of this series, I’ll make some suggestions about what we can begin to do about these barriers.

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2 thoughts on “The Crisis of Perception and Barriers to Change”

  1. Hi Alex, I sure enjoyed your two recent blogs. They are very useful as we work on scaling up our IPDP work, with significant help from Andrew H. I was at that same LF conference as you when Paul Hawken spoke the words you cite. Do you remember the psychic and electric charge that went through the room when he showed the video on our immune systems and did the math on how many of those nano scale interactions were happening at the same time amongst us all? Here we are again…(Too bad we hadn’t met then!) The IPDP’s theory of change is currently a variation on Beckhard’s: “people support what they LOVE,” but will undoubtedly benefit as our coming networked organization approach allows to do more help with the creating. And I love your Gareth Morgan metaphors…fortunately, I am pretty sure the IPDP is not in the 1st or 2nd catagories (I think we are mostly in the 3rd), but would like to get the 4th and 5th more in the forefront. I keep wanting to imagine a way that the COVID19 pandemic could lead to more collaboration in the US’s (and CA’s) f…..d up government and politics; I am sure that helping with creating (real democracy+/-) and love of connection (wilderness NOT+/) will have something to do with it.

  2. I was recently reminded of Richard Brautigan; thought you & your other readers might also like how his 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” resonates with your recent posts. It definitely reflects how I felt in the 80s – and now, with some sadness, in 2020:

    I like to think (and
    the sooner the better!)
    of a cybernetic meadow
    where mammals and computers
    live together in mutually
    programming harmony
    like pure water
    touching clear sky.

    I like to think
    (right now please!)
    of a cybernetic forest
    filled with pines and electronics
    where deer stroll peacefully
    past computers
    as if they were flowers
    with spinning blossoms.

    I like to think
    (it has to be!)
    of a cybernetic ecology
    where we are free of our labors
    and joined back to nature,
    returned to our mammal
    brothers and sisters,
    and all watched over
    by machines of loving grace.

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