Why You Can’t Change Anything, Unless…

Life isn’t random, you probably knew that bit. One thing influences another, and so on. Everything in your life is the outcome of something else: it’s arisen, it’s already a result.

Like the weather, we may not see one thing leading to another, but it does, and short-term weather forecasts are reliable. It’s the same for your work and life. We all want to change something, but to do so we have to do something about its cause(s). We must know them, but we rarely do. Let’s call what keeps things in place “placeholders”. Cause implies change but a placeholder implies holding things in place.


Most change fails at this first hurdle: we don’t understand why things are the way they are: we don’t identify the placeholders. We try to change outputs without changing the inputs! This kind of resistance is futile. So here’s my law of change:

You cannot make a lasting change to anything except at the level that it was created.

Think about it. Have you ever made a New Year’s resolution to change something and not kept it? You wanted to do this rather than that: but there’s a reason why you are doing that. And while that placeholder is in place, you will return to doing that pretty quickly. For leaders this is crucial: until we sense why the team is as it is, the team won’t change. Telling them to change makes no sense unless we address the placeholder.

Let’s explore. Think of something you want to be different: your mood, work, relationships of financials. Now you have something, the question is what holds that in place. For example, suppose someone asks themselves – Why am I experiencing stress – what would come to mind: too much work, a feeling of being out of control, an unclear purpose? While we could work on reducing stress, the factors causing stress would still be there. It’d be a struggle.

So take “too much work”: what is its own placeholder? Perhaps too little delegation. We could work on reducing work, but it would probably keep coming, so we have to go to the next level. What limits delegation? Perhaps a team you haven’t yet developed. Aha! Now we have arrived at what we may call, to adapt a term, “the causal level”. We may not have gone to the deepest cause-of-causes, but may have gone far enough for sustainable change: as you develop the team everything else changes down the line.

Outcomes cannot be changed without addressing causes. It’s simple. What do you think?

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