Why Most Change Efforts Don’t Work

The Paradox of Evolution & Homeostasis

Jeremy Yuille
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5 min readOct 29, 2023


In trying to climb out
of the pits we’ve dug ourselves,
the pit becomes resilient.
In trying to escape the prison,
the prison gains its form.

Bayo Akomolafe

Imagine a forest, a complex web of organic life, where every tree, bush, and critter has a unique role to play. Over time, the forest adapts to the shifting seasons, the availability of sunlight, and the water cycle. The forest is not just a collection of elements; it’s a well-evolved system that grows and adapts to fit its conditions.

Dry (Sclerophyll) forest found across Australia shows signs of complex adaptation to the natural rainfall and heat. Management of the grasslands and forest over millennia have developed a distinctive balance between the forest and the fire that feeds on it.

Just like this forest, organisations are also systems — complex, living structures composed of people, processes, and technologies. As a strategic designer, one might even say that these organisations are adaptive systems that are “fit for purpose” in their specific business environments. So, what happens when we decide we need to change?

The Fallacy of Element-Centric Change

Traditionally, organisations focus on changing the elements within the system — hiring new talent, implementing new technologies, or redesigning workflows. However, these interventions often lead to underwhelming outcomes. Why?

Because the systemic conditions that produced the old way of working remain unchanged.

In this realm, change management efforts are like someone who merely trims the branches of an overgrown tree, expecting it to magically become a different species altogether. The root system, the soil quality, and the climate — i.e., the external conditions — remain the same. The tree’s DNA and other internal conditions — are unchanged.

Trying to change the system without changing the conditions that hold the system in place.

Organisational Immune Systems

Organisations have an “immune system,” a set of ingrained behaviours, cultural norms, and operational structures that are extremely resilient to change. When you introduce new elements, the organisational immune system often kicks in to adapt around these foreign agents. You could call this the organisation’s own survival instinct, a form of “corporate homeostasis”.

Because this organisational immune system is programmed to maintain stability and resist deviation from established norms, attempts to implement element-centric change are often rejected or diluted to the point of insignificance.

Homeostasis: a fundamental aspect of systems

Shifting the Conditions, Not Just Elements

So, how do we make change work? By understanding that the forest and its trees are part of the same ecosystem. The trick is to not just focus on individual elements, but to also address the underlying conditions that have evolved to sustain the current state of affairs.

For instance, if a company’s culture prioritises short-term profits over long-term outcomes, introducing new sustainability initiatives will likely face resistance. Instead of merely launching these initiatives, the organisation would need to alter the conditions — perhaps by changing performance metrics, restructuring incentive systems, or even evolving the organisational culture itself to value outcomes over outputs.

Change as a Design Challenge

This perspective views organisational change as a strategic design challenge, requiring an understanding of the complex interplay between the elements and the conditions. It’s not just about “solving a problem,” but rather about “reconfiguring a system,” akin to how one would approach the design of a new product or service.

In popular science terms, this approach moves us from a Newtonian world view, where everything is a sum of its parts, to a more ecological perspective, where the relationships between parts and the whole add layers of complexity and potential for systemic evolution.

Zooming out…

Effective organisational change is neither straightforward nor quick — it’s a complex, systemic undertaking. It requires strategic insight to recognise the difference between the elements and the conditions that make up the system, and the wisdom to know that changing the former without addressing the latter is like expecting a forest to change by simply transplanting a few trees.

Time is a key part of this approach. Moving at the speed of the system you’re designing with.

When we understand organisations as systems — shaped, adapted, and conditioned by their environments — only then can we begin to effect change that is not just cosmetic, but transformative.

So the next time you’re faced with the challenge of changing a system, don’t just ask what needs to change. Ask what conditions must be altered to make that change not only possible but also sustainable. Then, perhaps, you’ll bypass the immune system and truly evolve the organisation.

What’s next?
Exploring Changemaking for Designers

This post kicks off a series inspired by Meld Studios’ Changemaking for Designers course. The course tackles the twin challenges of “doing different things” and “doing things differently,” a balance essential for meaningful change. Across nine weeks, you’ll learn to spot, shape, and steward change, gaining practical skills and peer support.

Stay tuned for more insights from this transformative course, designed to make you as adept at navigating change as you are at design.

The Ecosystem of Ideas Behind This Piece

This piece is informed by a multidisciplinary array of thinkers (and doers) who have significantly contributed to our understanding of systemic change and organisational dynamics. Bayo Akomolafe gifted the epigram in an amazing podcast back in that strange space between the Australian fires and the global pandemic of 2020.

Donella Meadows’ insights into ‘leverage points’ within systems and Peter Senge’s work on ‘learning organisations’ set the stage for how we think about elements and conditions in a system. John Sterman’s focus on System Dynamics and the FSG’s ‘Water of Systems Change’ add complexity, urging us to examine underlying conditions of “how” like power dynamics and “why” like mental models.

Kurt Lewin’s change management model emphasises the need to disrupt existing states, while Edgar Schein expands the conversation by delving into organisational culture, likening it to an ‘immune system’ against change. This notion of an ‘immune system’ aligns closely with Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey’s “Immunity to Change,” which explores the hidden psychological barriers that often thwart meaningful transformation.

adrienne maree brown’s ‘Emergent Strategy’ introduces an organic, adaptive approach, suggesting that small, interconnected actions can lead to significant shifts. Carol Sanford’s ‘Indirect Work’ does a great job of translating these ideas across scales.

Zooming even further out, recent science suggesting that all complex arrangements of matter are subject to evolutionary forces, positions collections of people (organisations) firmly at the more organic end of this spectrum. This suggests that mechanistic models of organisations aren’t that useful, because when we look at how we understand the universe, mechanical arrangements of ‘stuff’ are still subject to selection and homeostasis.

Collectively, these (and many more) thinkers offer us a robust intellectual toolkit, turning the challenge of organisational change from an academic exercise into a practical guide steeped in interdisciplinary wisdom.



Jeremy Yuille
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Principal @WeAreMeld Melbourne. Designer, coach, learner, seeker, finder, explorer.