Change Happens

by Joe Flower

International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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Most of us live - and think - as if the world were static, or as if it should be. As individuals, as professionals, and as members or leaders of organizations, too often the way we act, plan, and react betrays the assumption that tomorrow will be much like today, that we'll slide by all right if we just get a little better, a little smarter, at doing what we are already doing.

The reality is quite different: Of the multiple separate elements that make up what you think of as your "self," many are likely to change over the next five to ten years -- what you do for a living, how you carry out that career, what you call yourself professionally, the shape of the organization within which you work, whom you claim as spouse or mate, the flavor of that relationship, your financial situation, where you live, your relationships with your parents, children, and friends, your health, even your beliefs and assumptions about yourself and the world around you. Some will change drastically, some subtly. Some will change incrementally, some cataclysmically. Some will be changed by outside forces, some from within.

Nothing suggests
that this is going
to get easier.
In fact, every indication
is that the ride
will get a lot wilder

When we look at the trends underlying the rate of change - trends within society, demographic forces, technological shifts - nothing suggests that this is going to get easier. In fact, as we look forward into the new century, every indication is that the ride will get much wilder.

Both for individuals and for organizations, the skills that we most need to learn in order to survive and thrive are the skills of dealing with change.

Prediction: Faced with uncertainty, the most natural thing to do is to try to cut down on the uncertainty. We try to predict the future. Should I take an umbrella? Is the stock market going to fall? How much do I expect to earn this year? How will the department's budget end up?

This is classic trend analysis. It works over the relatively short term, when things are relatively stable, when one major variable changes at a time: the budget will rise by three to five percent, there's a sixty percent chance of showers by nightfall.

But there are problems with trend analysis. Consider the race car driver, given to plunging down a narrow, crowded track at heart-stopping speeds. At 220 miles per hour, he is betting his life on an exacting analysis of the short-term future. What if an accident occurs, a collision, a fireball in the middle of the track ahead of him? Which way should he steer to avoid the flaming wreckage? There is, in fact, a rule of thumb for this situation, and it might surprise you. The rule is: steer directly toward the spot where the accident began. The spot where the accident happened is the least likely spot for the wreckage to be when he gets there.

Surprisingly, this rule of thumb maps onto our personal, professional, and organizational lives. Today's trends have some predictive power over the short term, when other variables are not changing at the same time. Over any longer term, when other variables come into play, the target the trends seem to be headed for today is actually the least likely place for them to end up.

Chaos theory: There is a mathematical reality at the core of chaos theory: when one or two variables change over time, the result is a linear equation, a plot on a graph: We can actually plot the trend of their interactions. Cost of materials fall by a certain percentage, customer turnover rises by a certain percent, labor costs rise by a different percent, and in a year we are here on the graph, in two years we are here.

Its output becomes
not a line but a hairball,
steel wool, a snowstorm.

But when a larger number of different variables change over time, and the changing value of each one becomes the input for another, the resulting equation is non-linear. Its output becomes not a line but a hairball, steel wool, a snowstorm. The trend becomes not just very difficult to predict, but fundamentally impossible.

The more variables there are that are changing and interacting, the more turbulent our future, and the less we can predict it. So we have to prepare for it in a different way. In San Francisco, because of the interaction of ocean currents and winds, the inland heat, and the city's famous hills, the summer weather can vary wildly from one neighborhood to the next, from wind-blown fog to balmy sunshine to drizzle. So the experienced San Franciscan makes little attempt to predict the summer weather, but instead dresses in layers - shirt, sweater, jacket, with a windbreaker folded into the attache. He becomes adaptable, moment to moment.

How do I prepare for an unpredictable future?

Six practices will help us prepare for a future that is far less predictable than what we have enountered in the past:

In this web site we will explore these skills in detail, working through a number of propositions, observations, and rules of thumb that I call the "Change Codes." We will talk about change in our personal lives, our professional careers, and in the organizations that we help shepherd. One of my fundamental beliefs about change is that it is fractal in nature: that is, its form remains similar at different scales. There are things we can learn about it from studying intra-psychic phenomena that can inform our study of organizations, insights gained from family dynamics that can apply to communities or corporations.

How change works | The five fundamentals of change| What is your goal? | Core concepts | Skills| Skill-building resources | Touching what is, touching what might be | Paradox | Heading for the open space | Habits of mind | Scenario spinning | Coming out | Breaking the trance | Finding a new path | Why it's important | Four quadrants | Psychological roots | Change Processes | Main Page