When we're creating and delivering cultural change with organisations, planning how long it will take to 'change a culture' is often tricky. This article explains why. Whether it's an individual struggling with personal time management, a project team missing milestones or an organisation tackling a transformation, our brains are wired to understand those things which feel far away from us more abstractly than things which are close to us. This distance can be created by tangibility, time, space or sociability.
Let's take cultural change. Behaviours are, by definition, more abstract as a a concept. The individuals who make up the culture may be distanced from us and work across the globe. Cultural change is a long term process, it won't happen overnight - things can get complicated, fast.
How can we overcome it? Simply by tricking our brains. We can mentally reduce the time between the present and the future and make a cultural plan for next week, rather than for the next 18 months. We can think more deliberately about the plan and tasks which need to happen, fleshing our hypothetical scenarios in great detail. And we can build in 'time padding' to make up for the elements which your brain will have overlooked.
Our minds struggle with time management the longer the timeline we’re trying to manage becomes. In fact, time isn’t the only variable—your brain is wired to understand things that feel far away from you in time, space, or even your social network more abstractly than things it determines to be close to you. This makes intuitive sense to many of us but doesn’t always factor into the ways we plan out our work. When you start planning a project, its middle and end stages are farther away from you in time than its beginning, which invariably means they’ll be more abstract to you conceptually as well. But in addition, the other people you’ll need to work with on the project may have some distance from you socially, all by varying degrees—which means things can get pretty complicated fast.