Change paradox

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we are here to develop “The Great Narrative”: a story for the future ... In order to shape the future you have first to imagine the future, you have to design the future and then you have to execute.[1]

—Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum

We take it that, like any other intellectual proposition,[2] every management initiative must be driven by some theory or other — that is, it must be designed to prove out a hypothesis that already exists in someone’s mind.

Seeing as the minds whose hypotheses get tested tend to belong to those at or near the summit of their organisations, we see at once the paradoxical nature of mandated organisational change: the mandate for change must come from those who have lived their best lives within, because of, and thanks to, the status quo: those who have flourished in the present state of affairs, without it being changed.

Those, that is to say, who have most to lose from change. We pose, therefore, a rhetorical question: why would they want to change anything?

The argument runs like this: a “will to change” derives from a conviction that one’s current configuration is, somehow, wrong: that the organisation is sub-optimal, dysfunctional, elliptical or just broken.

To want change is to believe things are currently out of whack.

To bring change, someone with the necessary wherewithal must hold that belief.

Those with that wherewithal are usually thriving as they are.

Those who are presently thriving tend not to feel things are enormously out of whack and don’t really want to bring change.

A digression on the paradoxical nature of firms in a free market

Now, however much they might present to the outside world as embodiments of all that is laissez-faire, within their walls, most commercial organisations are dictatorships.[3] Only those at the very top of have any kind of wherewithal, other than to keep quiet, get on with your work and do what you are told.

The making of leaders

So, how do leaders get to lead? Well, an organisation is a system: a pulmonary lattice of stocks, flows and feedback loops, sending information, consuming resources, generating artefacts and, over time building — not just widgets for sale, but itself: speed up the frame-rate and you will see the organisation grow: whole new subsystems spawn and fiefdoms mushroom, while others wither and desiccate. The firm is alive; an organism: it makes itself. In a strangely loopy way, the firm emerges from its own recursive systems.

By the fact of its operation, a firm self-generates.

Besides widgets, externalities, fiefdoms and its stock-in-trade, another thing a firm self-generates is its own leaders. In an odd way, the organisation makes its own personnel: it selects, fashions and moulds them; it weeds out those who are misaligned, promotes those who are fittest and, where home-growns are not yet match-fit, brings in and enculturates external candidates.

Only the most successful of these personnel — the most paradigmatically of the organisation; who most perfectly resemble its essence — ever make it to the executive suite.[4] The selection process by which one ascends that greasy pole is relentless, unending and brutal. It fashions people, the way a river fashions stone.[5]

Leaders as a mirror of nature

All this is a baroque way of saying: these men and women who run the firm, who have the means to change it — they owe their very position to their synchronicity with how it is now. All its idiosyncrasies and imperfections; everything about its cock-eyed, peg-legged, pie-bald, skewiff, existing self.

The answer to the question: “if this firm, as it is now, made its own leaders, what would they look like?” is: LIKE THIS.

The answer to the question, “if this firm were changed, and then made its own leaders, what would they look like?” is: NOT LIKE THIS.

Hence, the conceptual problem with change from the top.

On the difficulty of changing from the top

So the idea of current management changing the very machine that has contrived to put them where they have the power to change presents a variation of the time traveller’s paradox: By changing something, do I kick away the very ladder I climbed to reach the cockpit? If I throw off the rope, do I leave myself stranded, should the weather change? If I fiddle in this way with the geometry of corporate spacetime, might I not disprove my very being? Will I dissolve before my own disbelieving eyes?

Yet we live in a time of change. We must change or die. We select our leaders to drive change.

Thus, management has derived some kind of prime directive: “I must change. For it is what leaders do. But whatever change I make, I must make it, without —” well, er — it is difficult to put this any way other than bluntly, readers — “... whatever change I make, I must make it without changing anything”.

And so it comes to pass: no outsourcing program, no employee survey, no cost challenge, no well-being outreach, no human resources initiative in history has been designed to prove out that, for example, the executive are a bunch of useless, glad-handing dilettantes, nor that the echelons of upper management, though in place for decades, have not once made an ounce of difference; that the problem with our stars is not the cost of front-line staff but of the sediment of management pressing down upon them, hindering their reactions to the changing needs and desires of their local markets.

We dare say it would be rather fun if someone were to try to launch an initiative on such a hypothesis, but we feel it would be a work of science fiction indeed.

Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. Only the staff would do that, if anyone asked them, so no-one asks them.

How change happens

Change comes from fracture, disruption and disharmony: when shafts of light are thrown from unexpected angles by unintentionally broken windows, and they illuminate old problems or new opportunities in unexpected ways.

Penicillin, the microwave, Velcro and the theory of the Big Bang were all discovered by accident. So too, teflon, vulvanised rubber, Viagra and Coca-Cola.[6] The great cultural changers of the last century, whatever you think of them — Tim Berners-Lee, Bob Dylan, Madonna, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Tupac Shakur, Germaine Greer, Nigel Farage, Steve Jobs, David Graeber, Nelson Mandela, Judith Butler, Greta Thunberg, Elvis — did not start out life as presidents, prime ministers or chief executive officers. They were not of the establishment. They changed the establishment, so it became them.

References

  1. Well spotted Gillian McKeith https://twitter.com/GillianMcKeith/status/1463977014583566349?t=8X9EwbStd57TZwkuP-PhSQ&s=19
  2. We speak of none other than the Duhem-Quine thesis as to the theory-dependence of observation: that it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because any test presupposes one or more background assumptions and auxiliary hypotheses.
  3. We are not being provocative here. The analogy is eerily precise: there is a tight command-and-control structure, no meaningful democracy; the centralised dissemination of information that is filtered, framed and sometimes rewritten to make the administration look good, and all is ably supported by a clandestine internal agency with unlimited power whose job is to keep the ranks in a state of fear and mistrust of each other and the authorities.
  4. Cry bitter tears, my friends: almost certainly, you are not so destined. The sooner you realise this, the easier becomes your burden.
  5. Now you may notice another paradox here: however singly directed from on high it seems, the very illusion of command-and-control emerges from the subconscious machinations of the beast.
  6. According to Popular Mechanics Magazine.