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Change Happens

By Joe Flower

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.

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.

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 encountered in the past:

Deeper analysis: Look beyond surface trends to the underlying changes. Take one trend as an example: suppose there is a rise in pregnancy among unmarried teens in your area. The first impulse is to provide the teens with condoms, or simply tell them to knock it off. Will that work? I don't think so. We have to go deeper: What is the underlying change? Are there more teens? More teen unemployment? A lack of recreation facilities? A different cultural group moving into the area? A lack of family planning and abortion services? A drop in sex education? Loosening influence of churches and families? These can tell you more about the future -- and the possible solutions -- than the surface trend can.

Wider scanning: Search regularly far beyond your accustomed bounds for the "seventh wave" that could change everything. U.S. healthcare organizations traditionally concerned themselves with attracting doctors and community donors, and dealing with federal and state regulation. They were blindsided by coalitions of employers, which are now the fundamental drivers of change in the industry. Disney fought home videocassette recorders tooth and nail, taking manufacturers to court, claiming that home video would destroy their theatrical movie business. They lost the suit, VCRs became popular -- and now Disney is the single largest seller of home videos.

Constant scanning: Don't rely on a one-time analysis by an outside consultant, a therapist, or a personal change seminar. Build future scanning into your regular practice. Build your life as a learning experience, build your organization around its ability to learn. If your learning is only a product of something special, something extra (a retreat, a class, a period of re-engineering), it will be rare, it will be meager, and it will not integrate well into everyday life. If learning arises out of the everyday way that you or your organization goes about your business, learning will be constant, rich, and easily assimilable.

Scenarios: As opposed to trend analysis, working with scenarios is a way to build a number of alternative futures. It helps us prepare for many possible futures, and spot the scenarios that could particularly lethal - or particularly attractive.

Vision: The most potent factor in the creation of your future is you. Victory does not always go to the largest armies, the best deployment, and the most firepower. It goes as often to the smaller force with the greatest imagination, flexibility, and boldness, with the vision to make something happen. Every vision of the future sets off its own feedback loop. One prepares for what one believes will happen. At the same time, that preparation makes it more likely that this particular future will happen. Ask yourself what future you would prefer. Ask yourself what you are preparing for. For most organizations and individuals, the two are drastically different. If the point of future scanning is to have a more desirable future, rather than a less desirable one, then it is not enough simply to do your best at figuring out what is likely to happen and react to it. The best way to get to a more desirable future is to go out and create it, to envision that future and plan for it.

Learning the skills of change: Surviving and thriving in a turbulent environment calls for a particular skill set, one that is not taught in university courses. These skills are more than a certain philosophical bent, or a quirk of personality. They are actual methods, tools, ways of seeing that work in turbulent environments. They are the skills of the surfer and the martial artist, the skills of jazz rather than chamber music, soccer rather than baseball. Some are obvious without long thought -- a certain flexibility, for instance. Others require a deeper study: for instance, the ability to turn the force of what is coming at you to your own advantage. Other skills may be completely counter-intuitive: the skill, for instance, of "anamnesis," the ancient mystic's ability in the middle of the shifting, swirling present to reach back and touch what is deep and constant.

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.

International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower. All Rights Reserved.

Life goals. Money goals. In that order.

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