People Don’t Embrace Change, They Embrace New Situations

Matt Russell
Jan 12, 2018 · 4 min read

In every business there are two types of change: the change you are a part of and the change that leaves you behind.

We live in an age where change happens more rapidly than at any other time in human history. Technology and globalization have transformed our world so much that organizations must continuously adapt or else risk irrelevancy.

Unless companies become obsessed with constant change for the better, gradual change for the worse usually goes unnoticed. — Vineet Nayar

Creating an Adaptive Culture

This places us in a tough spot as leaders because creating an adaptive culture in any organization is hard. Most people do not like change, they resist it like the plague.

They resist change because it is ambiguous, uncertain, and generally uncomfortable. It requires people to stop doing things that are familiar and start doing things that are new.

Leaning into the uncomfortable: However, leaning into change is exactly what drove Apple’s success over the past decade. Apple could have said “we have a hit” when they made the iPhone and left it at that. But it didn’t do that. Instead Apple continuously adapted the way people interact with their phones — releasing new innovative features every year. This made all the difference and caused annual iPhone sales to go form 1 million to 216 million over the past decade. [1]

Staying in the comfort zone: On the other hand, avoiding change is exactly what led to Blockbuster’s free fall. The company found a “hit” early on (providing easy access to rentable videos and games) and then got comfortable. Blockbuster did not adapt and find new ways to deliver video entertainment to customers. It staunchly held on to its old model (living in its past success). Meanwhile, competitors capitalized on the internet and people’s growing comfort with technology through online video subscriptions and DVD vending machines. This ultimately led to Blockbuster’s failure.

The degree to which an organization embraces or resists change ultimately determines its destiny.

Don’t Try to Change People, Change Their Situation

The secret to creating an adaptive culture in any organization is to focus on changing people’s situations, not their behaviors. For some reason people naturally adapt when placed in new situations. It transforms change from a matter of will to more of a reflex.

Cornell researchers demonstrated this finding with popcorn studies, yes… that’s right, popcorn! They gave two groups of moviegoers an unlimited amount of popcorn (that means free refills). Except one group had medium-sized buckets of popcorn and the other had large buckets. Which group of moviegoers do you think consumed more popcorn? Yes, that’s right. The group with the large buckets. [2]

At first glance these results seem simple, but they actually show something quite profound. They demonstrate that we can change people’s behavior by merely changing their situation.

This insight has tremendous potential to transform the culture of our organizations.

The Three Situations That Must Change

  • We must change people’s position: People naturally gravitate to the mindset “we have always done things this way” when their identity is tied to a position that has… well, “always done things that way.” If we change a person’s position, we change their mindset. This makes people not only open to change, but owners of it.
  • We must change people’s attitude: People resist change because it is ambiguous and uncertain. They become paralyzed with options and questions about whether the plan will be successful or even if they will be successful. To fix this, we must reassure people and reduce their uncertainty. This gives them a new mental position toward change and allows them to move forward.
  • We must change people’s motives: Change is hard, and people will only do their absolute best when they believe in what they do. Nobody implements change merely for “change’s sake,” there is always a deeper why. We must engage people at a personal level on why change is important. The “why” must be big enough to inspire belief. This is because if people do not believe in change, they will not give their all to it.


  1. “Unit sales of the Apple iPhone worldwide from 2007 to 2017 (in millions).” Accessed: 10 January 2018.
  2. Lang, Susan, S. “Bad popcorn in big buckets.” 9 November 2005. Accessed 10 January 2018.

Check out the startup my wife and I founded to help use business as a way of fighting human trafficking. We empower women to change the world through a cup of coffee. Fair Trade Coffee Cups and Products —

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