#Blogtober: A theory of change

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24 / 10 / 2014 12.01am

By Michael Ciszewski

#Blogtober Day: Friday 24 October

The way we have thought about change over the years has been influenced by the social and scientific thinking of the time.

  • Kurt Lewin’s unfreeze-change-refreeze is straight out of the linear cause and effect world of Newtonian physics and Cartesian epistemology: Change as a planned and managed process.
  • As we started to familiarise ourselves with systems thinking and large-scale change efforts, we taught ourselves to work with transformation -- something bigger and more complicated, but still with causal chains and loops that fit with the world as we understood it. The world was speeding up, but it was still something we could manage through.
  • Now we have quantum physics, complexity science, behavioural economics, and other disciplines that are showing us that change is not manageable, controllable, or able to be planned. It is with us all the time as an emergent phenomenon.

The river is perhaps the most apt metaphor for thinking about change. As steady and constant as the mightiest of them can seem, we can never step into the same one twice. Another illustration of this perspective is contained in the proverb that instructs us there is no step one, step two, step three; there is only step one. We have moved from a concept of change as something you do through planning and execution to change as something that is.

Because change is always with us, it is far more effective to decide what to do right now (step one), watch what happens, and on the basis of those results, decide what to do in that next right now (a new step one). In the present we never know what will happen next. We have to be open, adaptable, and willing to experiment. It is only in this place of uncertainty that learning is truly possible.

Whether trying to find blame for something that happened in the past, or careening down a predefined path toward a future that must be there -- in either case, the risk is in closing oneself to what may be going on along the way. These stances shut off curiosity and any ability to learn from what is happening. If we can develop the discipline to live most of our lives in the present and find the courage to be comfortable with all the uncertainty that implies, we will have cultivated our ability to learn more fully.

Michael Ciszewski has built an international OD practice over the last twenty years with experience in the US, UK, Europe, Africa and Asia. Based in Washington D.C., he specialises in helping executive and leadership teams have potentially difficult conversations. Michael can be contacted via email address or Twitter @CampdenHill.

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