Homeostasis: The Enemy of Continuous Improvement

08-November-2014 7:10
in Practical Small Business Advice
by Admin

Continuous Improvement cartoon

The idea of continuous improvement is hugely seductive yet notoriously difficult to translate into action.  My experience is that when we resolve to make any kind of change for the better, whether in our lives or our business, we tend to make a temporary improvement before we then backslide toward our original condition.  Why is this?  Is it simply a lack of either individual or institutional will power that leads to backsliding or is there something else? To better understand why continuous improvement proves so elusive to so many individuals and organisations, we need to understand why we instinctively fight change.  We need to understand the principle of homeostasis.

To see homeostasis in action, we need only reflect on these quick exam­ples.  If you become too hot, the body's natural reaction is to sweat to cool down.  If your blood sugar level drops, glucagon is released to bring it back up.  When you go in a dark movie the­ater, your pupils dilate to be able to see in the dark.  Homeostasis is a physiological response that com­pen­sates for any significant change to our "normal" physical condition, designed to return the con­di­tion back to the “nor­mal” level.  It characterises all self regulating systems from a bacterium to a frog to a human to a family to an organisation to an entire culture.  It also applies beyond simple physiological responses to psychological states and functioning.

Our homeostatic reflexes are designed to keep us safe and in so doing serve a crucially important function.  If our body temperature, for example, was to increase or decrease by any more than 5%, we would either be seriously ill or dead.  The challenge is that these same homeostatic reflexes work to maintain what is normal for us even if normal is not good for us.  Take for example how we respond to a return to physical exercise after a prolonged sedentary period.  Shortness of breath, dizziness and other terrible feelings are not uncommon.  It's the homeostatic alarm bell ringing warning us that we have raised our heart rate, metabolism and respiration way beyond what is normal for us and telling us to stop it immediately.  Homeostasis does not distinguish between what we might call a change for the better and a change for the worse.  It resists all change.

I've seen the homeostatic reflex at work in just about every consulting assignment i've ever had.  I typically work with small business owners who want to drive change and growth in their organisations and they think that continuous improvement is just a question of discipline or of presenting the right arguments to the right people.  Unfortunately for these well intentioned small business owners, homeostasis has ensured that we are each equipped with elaborate defense mechanisms designed to shoot down anything that might keep things from staying exactly where they are.   Here are some examples of the kind of self talk the homeostatic reflex promotes to neutralise any evidence that an individual or an organisation might need to change.  I've put them into the following five categories:

  • Focusing on the Messenger to Avoid Hearing the Message - Attacking the messanger is a favourite way of deflecting attention away from the truth or validity of the message.  We tell ourselves, "Who does [the small business owner] think he is?  What right does he have to tell me that what we do isn't good enough? He couldn't do any better himself.  He's lazy, greedy, egomaniacal..." and so on.  The truth is these objections are more about our homeostatic reflex to avoid change than any genuine concern about the messanger and even if there were legitimate concerns about the messanger this would not necessarily invalidate the message.
  • Focusing on the Tone to Avoid Hearing the Content -  It's easy to ignore the truth or validity of what it has been said if we can find some fault, no matter how small, with how it was said.  We tell ourselves, "How dare he talk to me like that?  After all I've done for this business.  He'd be lost without me.  I can't believe he'd be so ungrateful as to suggest that we need to change.  He can't be a good leader if he would talk to me like that".  Having taken offence at some perceived slight, we then justify not committing to change or growth and the performance of the business can consequently remain at "normal" levels.
  • Revising or Rewriting History - When faced with evidence that there is a need to change, it is often easier to simply rewrite history to undermine the credibility of tha eveidence.  We tell ourselves, "Things aren't so bad!  We might have had a a difficult few months but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There's no need to change just as what we are doing is bearing fruit".  Our ability to ignore the facts of a situation when they are staring us in the face are remarkable.  No wonder change management experts talk of the need to create a "burning platform" for change.  Anything less could be rationalised away or justified with a quick revision of history.
  • Convincing Ourselves That Attempts at Improvement Undermine our True Selves -This kind of all or nothing thinking is surprisingly common.  We persuade ourselves that we are who we are and any attempt to change that is either doomed to failure or an unfair infringement of our human right to self determination.  We tell ourselves "I shouldn't have to change who I am to conform to their new idea of what acceptable looks like.  This is not a communist dictatorship.  If they don't like me the way I am, then they shouldn't have hired me.  You can't teach an old dog new tricks".  Of course, this is homeostasis at work again.  If you were honest with yourself, you would conclude like Tyler Durden in Fight Club that " You are not your job".  The need or desire for an improvement in performance is not necessarily any reflection on your character.   
  • Deliberately Interpreting Any Criticism as an Insult - I've seen the most innocuous statement be transformed into a scathing personal attack in the minds of listeners.  An attempt to grow a small business can often be misinterpreted.  Faced with the propect of having to achieve more, we tell ourselves "Who are they calling lazy and worthless?  Why does he think that putting me down will build his business? I'm already doing more than can be reasonably expected of me.  How can I do more?".

I'm sure you recognise this type of negative self talk, but perhaps haven't thought of it in terms of homeostasis before.  The truth is that the homeostatic reflex to avoid change is always present anytime that there is even the slightest prospect of change.  We ought to expect resistance to change and the resultant backsliding as an inevitable part of any effort to improve ourselves and our organisations.  If we are prepared for homeostasis, we will not feel threatened when the pace of change stalls or when performance actually backslides.  We will instead double our resolve to get past the pull of homeostatic reflexes to establish a new "normal".  

Stephen R. Covey used the metaphor of space flight to illustrate homeostasis at work in our lives.  He taught that more energy is used up in the first few miles than is subsequently used over several days to travel half a million miles.  Achieving "Lift Off" in our lives and organisations in our journey towards our dream destination takes tremendous effort but once we break free of the gravity pull, our freedom takes on a whole new dimension.  Like homeostasis, gravity can work with us or against us.  The gravity pull of our bad habits, both individual and organisational, can prevent us getting where we want to go, but this same force pushes us to persist in doing the positive things in our lives that we have successfully established as habits.  

If you are looking to establish a new "normal" in your organisation at a higher level of achievement, contact Continuous Business Planning today.  Not only will we be able to help you map out a path from where you are now to where you want to go, but we can help and support you as you look to implement the changes necessary.