14 September 2010

Want to Change the World?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”—R. Buckminster Fuller

Fuller and Marshall McLuhan were acquaintances—perhaps one could even call them friends. Certainly, they shared aspects of a worldview when it came to understanding processes of change. (On the other hand, McLuhan was a Paul Revere-ish figure when it came to technology: “To arms! To arms! The media are coming.” Fuller, on the other, other hand, embraced the beneficent potential of technological change.) With regard to this “Bucky” quotation, I notice the explicit reference to obsolescence, and the tacit implication of reversal (which is my favourite among McLuhan’s four Laws of Media).

When a particular idea, conception, invention, or technology (all “media” in McLuhan’s construction) is no longer providing the structural impetus for a society or culture, it is, in McLuhan’s terms, obsolete. As he notes, this doesn’t mean that it disappears; in fact, it might be just the opposite. Obsolescence means that the thing or concept in question becomes ubiquitous in a banal sort of fashion—like some fashion (think, cloned couturier at Walmart, for example). It is almost always the case that the new medium – more precisely, the effects of the new medium – goes relatively unnoticed for a long while, all the time reframing, reshaping, and re-engaging the means and consequences of human interactions. But it is the new medium’s ability to diminish the dominant influence of the old – to force the latter’s obsolescence – that enables change.

It is often the case that a medium is pushed too far, forcing it into what McLuhan calls reversal—the state in which the effects of the original medium “flip” into their opposite. Whereas obsolescence is the tetrad quadrant of the past, reversal is the quadrant of the future. It is the means and mechanism of large-scale, systemic change.

Bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organizations have been around for a long time—arguably since the 10th century or so, an in the modernist context, since the post-Enlightenment (i.e., 17th century) period. The Industrial Age confirmed the BAH organization as a “best practice,” more or less, and from that foundation 20th century thinking progressed (and I use that term loosely) towards structural contingency theories: the idea that an organization’s structure determines its effectiveness, and that structure is contingent on the environment external to the organization among its markets, customers, competitors, regulators, and so forth. It sort of makes sense, in a deterministic, linearly causal, Industrial Age, clockwork notion of factory-style organizations. It characterizes “the existing reality,” or at least the reality that existed as we entered modernity.

Problematic? Sure. Dysfunctional? Clearly. Changeable? Ah, that’s the proverbial $64,000 question. You see, that so-called existing reality is no longer the current reality, that is the reality of contemporary times.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. Build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

That is why I created Valence Theory, and why I focus on interventions that don’t fight the existing reality in organizations, but rather introduce a new model that is more effective – creating an explicit awareness of effects – in order to help all members of the organization truly change things.

If you are the type of organizational leader who believes that his or her employees are the problem, or the arrangement of the organization chart is the problem, or that the solution lies in simply implementing new technology that makes old processes more efficient, then I might be able to offer you assistance via individual coaching and counsel. However, if you are the type of leader who realizes that their organization’s existing reality will not sustain it through this current period of complexity and transition, I definitely can assist with a new, effective model and methods that make the existing model quite obsolete.

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