This article was first published in the January 2016 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Change is a difficult issue to crack. Invent a killer app that makes life easier for everyone and the world will queue up to thank you and make you rich. Try to make a company face in a different direction and obstacles will be thrown in your path from here to the horizon.

Once upon a time change management programmes were seen as the answer. An exorbitantly expensive team of consultants would be hired, and great plans, timetables and strategic away-days organised. And it would all happen before any of the workforce or their managers had an inkling. From there the change would either be cascaded downwards, or implemented from the bottom up. Tone from the top would become a relentless mantra. Buy-in would be sought. A never-ending series of route-maps and programmes would be rolled out. And, eventually, the share price would shift a bit upwards, and celebrations would be in order.

I was present at one event where the CEO was presented with one of those giant cheques to hold aloft that lottery winners used to be photographed with. The cheering audience of employees was then thanked for assisting with the change that had brought about this figure of added value. None of it was very convincing. It is a chimera. You may hope for it, but that doesn’t mean it will come about.

There is more than just management theory involved in change. Behaviour – and not just corporate behaviour – can have very strong roots. It can run back a long way through history.

Social historians and urban geographers find the same thing. A recent book on the history of behaviour in London after dark (Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London, by Matthew Beaumont) describes noisy, drunken and riotous outbreaks among young men in Cheapside in the City: ‘There was shouting in the streets, and the unsettling noise of people running and laughing; then the ominous and distinctly uncommon sound of breaking glass, an expensive commodity in the sixteenth century.’ This particular incident happened on a January day in 1543. A gang of drunken apprentices got the blame. Our contemporary Friday-night uproar when traders and bankers go on a spree has not changed a great deal in 500 years or so.

Studies of demographics produce similar conclusions. Peter Ackroyd, one of the more entertaining of London’s historians, concluded (in his London: A Biography): ‘Any slice or slide of London life, in other words, would broadly mirror that of previous and succeeding centuries. There has been no fundamental change.’ Neolithic trackways parallel the runways at Heathrow airport. The shiny Lloyds building occupies the same site that, for centuries, boasted the maypole that towered over the City on festive occasions.

Elusive lasting change

The more widely you look, the more you find that change that will have a lasting effect is very hard to bring about. And it is even harder in companies. They have become used to short-term changes in position – lurches this way and that as investors, commentators and the share price change tack. And they have become used too to the idea that installing another hopefully charismatic leader will bring about miracles.

In a recent speech the chairman of the Financial Reporting Council, Win Bischoff, summed it up like this: ‘The board must define the company’s purpose, the outcomes it wants to secure and the behaviours it wishes to promote. This involves asking questions and making choices about the correct balance between constructive innovation and disproportionate risk-taking; deciding whether different parts of the business should operate differently; maintaining culture under pressure and through change; balancing the delivery of short-term and longer-term needs; and encouraging constructive discussion on culture among shareholders.’

In other words Bischoff knows what it is. The difficulty is getting there from here. The recent report from the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulatory Authority into the collapse of high-street bank HBOS in 2008 details how hard it can be. Some £20.5bn was lost. But if you read the report you find that it is not the technical fancy-footwork of the financial rocket scientists that was to blame. It was ordinary common sense, admittedly in fevered times, not being applied to almost every situation that faced them.

They were probably doomed from the start when they decided, post-merger, that what had been the Halifax Building Society and Bank of Scotland should ignore their traditional strengths and pursue entirely different strategic goals. It was change management in all but name. And that didn’t work either. The report confirms that barking-mad stuff was going on all over the place and no one seemed able to do anything about it.

Change by stealth

It is tempting to suggest that change management programmes and similar efforts simply don’t work. And the use of auditors may not help either. The consultancy Independent Audit had this to say recently: ‘Gathering evidence that gives indications of problems is standard audit methodology, but getting beneath the surface of what’s caused them isn’t always audit’s strong suit. And some auditors need to have “something to audit” and so want to assess behaviour against policy statements or other formal benchmarks, which will only get you so far.’

The long-term answer may be to bring about corporate culture change by stealth – bringing it in sideways as it were – and avoiding all the disengaged downside of anything that feels like command and control. This is why something like the concept of integrated reporting could be useful in the future. Installing a useful reporting system may allow other ideas to surface in turn. And thinking about them may be the stimulant that allows change to follow naturally. It might then just come about because it seems sensible and logical – and nothing to do with the consultants’ manuals.

Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist