10 Assumptions about Change

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Change is embedded in everything. It is the subtext of every topic of conversation that I have. It is the core issue of every project that I do.

Our assumptions about change need to change.

First Assumption: Change is bad.

Change is neutral. It is needed in every aspect of life. Without change there is no life. Too much change too quickly can be destructive. Change functions on a continuum between growth and decline, even life and death.

Second Assumption: The Opposite of Change is No Change.

Staying the same isn't a very sustainable strategy. Yet, it seems to be the response I hear most often to the prospect of change.

Third Assumption: Manage Change through Attitudes and Behaviors.

This is a good approach to a point. It assumes that human beings are living in an environment which is changing and their response (attitudes and behaviors) is how we address change. However, I find that this is an inadequate approach to the management of change.

I can understand why these assumptions are the ones I encounter most. They are based on assumptions that are the conventional wisdom of the past century. What are those assumptions?

Fourth Assumption: Large, Global, Transnational Organization is the logical, progressive direction of human civilization.

This assumption is captured most succinctly in the phrase "too big to fail." Yet, we do see failure, decline, possible disintegration and collapse of the world's largest and, at one time, the most progressive and prosperous nations and organizations.

Fifth Assumption: Stability, efficiency and maximumization of resources are the highest values of organizations.

What this perspective actually produces is vocational instability, economic volatility, social dislocation and the concentration of power and resources into the hands of the few.

Sixth Assumption: Urbanization, and the loss of an agrarian socio-economic culture, is the progressive and beneficial outcome of these historic trends.

While I am not an urban sociologist or economist, my on-the-ground observations is that increasing urbanization is more inefficient, is poor ground for the sustainability of inter-generational communal social structures, and increases the cost and demands of daily living. It seems to me that all these factors exist within a continuum where too little and too dense are not ideal for community or socio-economic sustainability.

Seventh Assumption: The above trends have disrupted natural cycles of growth by accelerating the process of change beyond what is now manageable under the assumptions of the past century. 

As an out-of-alignment wheel on a car spins more chaotically as speed and variation increase, so are the cycles of change increasing in speed and variability.

Eighth Assumption: Change is cyclical and we are at the end of a long cycle of the kind of growth in organizations described above.

From a contemporary context, is Greece's economic meltdown the anomaly or is it the canary in the coalmine?  Are we at the end of the era where large, global, transnational organizations can function?

Ninth Assumption: The future will be or should be like the past.

There are two assumptions here. One is if the past is prelude to the future, then what in our past should we have seen that would have helped us to predict the past decade of terrorism, war, political division and global economic recession?

It is helpful to read Professor Carroll Quigley's Oscar Iden Lectures, "Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, A.D. 976 - 1976” Quigley was a professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University for over forty years. His perspective is unique, expansive and, I find, very insightful.

The other assumption concerns our nostalgia for past golden ages as Professor H.W. Brands of the University of Texas describes them. He describes that much of this nostalgia is focused on the decades between 1945 and 1965, the golden age of American political economy as he describes it.

... for Baby Boomers, this is the age of our childhood. There is this tendency of humans to look back to a golden age. If you quiz people, the golden age usually corresponds to their childhood.  They’ll say, life was simpler. Of course, life was simpler, you were 8 years old.

There’s this thinking of, if we could just get back to the way things were in 1950 or 1960, then all will be well. Part of it is this individual nostalgia.

But part of it is this historically anomalous position during this period from 1945 to 1965. Because in a fundamental way, the US was the only victor of World War II. The US was the only country that came out with a stronger economy than it went in. America’s principal industrial competitors were either gravely weakened, like Britain, or absolutely demolished like Germany and Japan. So, it was easy for the US to embrace free trade. Yeah, level the playing field because we’ve already leveled the industrial capacity of all our competitors.

The weakness of this assumption is that underlying it is a belief often held that our best years are in the past, not the future, therefore, what changes we experience today are taking us further away from the golden age of the past.

Tenth Assumption: Change is Structural, and cannot be adequately faced by just changing attitudes and behaviors.

The future is going to be different. The last stage of acceptance of this will be the recognition that many of the above assumptions are declining in validity. Yes, of course, as individuals we adapt to change by modifying our attitudes and behaviors. We also must adapt by changing the social and organizational structures that have led us to this point in history.

The indicators of structural change are already evident. They are awaiting application in theory, design and practice.  I'll write about them in my next posting.