New Year Resolutions: “What Do I Do Differently on Monday Morning?”

New Year is a good time to discuss changing behavior. At this time of year there is lots of talk about new resolutions, “starting with clean slates” and “turning over new leaves”. Very little of this will turn into action. And even if it does, it is unlikely to persist for long in the form of virtuous habits. The current wrangling in the American Congress over the measures required to avoid the “fiscal cliff” is an excellent illustration of the problem.  Legislators are stuck in a series of vicious traps, where the short-term rewards are such that they swamp any concerns about the long run damage being done to the economy and society. Many Republican members of the House are worried that any compromise with the Democrats will lead directly to challenges in their party’s primaries for the 2014 elections. For them it will be easier to compromise after the January 1 deadline passes, when they can plead the resulting crisis as the reason to make a deal.

Change on a much smaller scale is only slightly less difficult. “What do I do differently on Monday morning?” is the most challenging question that I get from managers when I talk to them about the advantages of an ecological perspective of organizations over the standard economic-based one.  The short answer I give to them is “Everything!” The long answer is, “I don’t know. It depends entirely on your own particular situation and the contexts in which you find yourself. Only you can know what these are, but the ecological perspective can help you frame the situation and tease out the tangled webs of cause and effect.”

Every Organization is Different From Every Other

Among the key insights from the ecological perspective is that, in practices like management, we act our way into better ways of thinking even more readily than we think our way into better ways of acting.   Thinking works with abstractions; acting has to cope with the details. Thus, when it comes to acting, contexts matter and history matters. This means that in important ways all organizations are unique. Thus, when it comes to change, one size cannot fit all. Every effective approach will be different in important ways from every other.

To understand the uniqueness of every organization we cannot stand outside as a detached, objective observers. From a distance many organizations look the same – to see the differences we have to get close-up, inside the organization as a subjective participants. Here, on the inside, it is very helpful to have an ecological perspective to help us understand cause and effect.

From Black & White Snapshots to Colour Movies

How does the ecological perspective accomplish this? I liken it to switching from a black and white snapshot view of the world to colour movies:

Suppose that you, since birth, had been able to see the world only in black and white and, what’s more, only one frame at a time? Then, suddenly, one day you are able to see everything in vivid colour and able to string sequences of frames together. What difference would it make? I think it would be a huge difference that would play out in many different but interrelated ways:

  1. It would make the world a lot more complex; things that had looked similar to you before would now look very different from each other.
  2. It would make one’s view of the world much more fine-grained and nuanced – you would be able to differentiate better one situation from another.
  3. It would make one much more sensitive to change and the subtle ways in which things change in space and over time.
  4. It would allow one to come up with different perceptions of cause-and-effect; one could see, for example, that humming-birds are drawn to pink flowers and understand better how and why.
  5. One would be able to formulate better hypotheses and test their implications more accurately.
  6. One would be able to tell more compelling stories and assess their impact on people more readily.
  7. One’s ability to read situations would allow one to take action in subtler, more sensitive ways. What had previously been certainties (one best way) would now become contingencies (it all depends).
  8. Experience would build one’s ability to perceive more accurately and open one to a world of possibilities.
  9. Seeing the world in colour would breed sensitivity and judgement. One would see people less like objects and more like individuals. One would realize more readily and in what ways every person is like every other person, like some other persons and like no other person.
  10. In short, seeing the world in colour doesn’t change things, it changes the relationships between things. Where before one has seen isolated objects, now one would see systems.  And the systems view changes everything…

From an ecological/systems perspective the current political crisis in America looks like a slow-motion train wreck with many component causes. Together they create what have been called “wicked” problems – problems that defy definition, let alone solution. And the way one defines them determines how one goes about solving them. Like the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School before Christmas, the webs of cause and effect in wicked problems are complex and tangled. With no clear definitions for many of these challenges, it looks as though it will take larger crises before anything coherent is done about them. Which means that in many ways 2013 is going to be more of the same, but with some hope for real change…

A Prosperous New Year to you all!

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