There are only a few certainties that we have to deal with as human beings, that our physical bodies will eventually die and that love causes as much pain as pleasure. Even though change can be a very unpleasant experience, it always has some positive aspects to it. Of course, the happier aspects of change are easier to deal with than the negative ones. Whether a change is positive or negative, it requires an individual to adjust and cope with the change.
For those of us looking to make a significant change in our professional lives, we are faced with a fundamental challenge. That challenge, it would seem, would stem mostly from the difficulty that naturally results in our efforts to uncover which direction we want to go professionally and how to get there. Of course, these things are very challenging. Yet, the biggest challenge that I see when facing such a significant change is how to cope with the nature of change itself. The best way to cope with change is to develop a better understanding of the change process.
The Nature of Change
First and foremost, change occurs on many levels: cultural, social, institutional and individual. To make things even more complicated, the various levels of change often occur without warning and with multiple levels occurring simultaneously. Karl Marx believed that all social change was born from internal contradiction within various class struggles. If we take Marx’s concept and apply it to the individual human being, a better understanding of change can be implemented. The “class” struggle that occurs within the individual would be a struggle of competing beliefs or choices. An individual who chooses a new career has to deal with the mental struggle of competing beliefs; “I have been a lawyer for ten years. Do I have what it takes to open up my own business?” Marx also believed that progress was born from conflict, struggle and violent revolution. In essence, human suffering is a necessary component of change. When the mind battles with new ideas, it must undergo a period of “insanity” or “violent struggle” that allows the old concept to die or dissipate and the new one to set in and become “real.” If individuals don’t find tools that help assist and allow for this struggle to take its course, the process will include much suffering. Just as a wound needs time to heal, the mind needs time to adjust to new ideas and choices.
Thomas Kuhn introduced the concept of a paradigm, which is a conceptual blueprint or arrangement of assumptions that could be seen to constitute a belief system. The key descriptive nature of a paradigm is that it has its own set of rules and creates its own set of facts. The result is that it becomes self-validating and therefore resistant to change. Our beliefs and ideas also need to validate themselves and anything that threatens that belief will be resisted. The transmutation of a caterpillar into a butterfly is an eloquent metaphor that describes the process the mind must take to embrace changes in its belief system. In this metamorphosis. tiny cells that are known as “imaginable discs” begin to appear in the body of the caterpillar. The caterpillar’s immune system does not immediately recognize these discs, and so abruptly wipes them out. Yet, as they multiply and begin to link up, they ultimately overwhelm the caterpillar’s immune system. Its body then breaks down and the imaginable discs build the butterfly from the spent materials of the caterpillar. The same type of process occurs during change. We “imagine” new ideas and choices that must battle our immune system, which causes stress to our physical body. The good news is that in the end, everything always works out to our benefit.
Conditions of Change
For Sociologists the emphasis has recently shifted regarding what is most valuable when it comes to understanding change; emphasis is now focused on the conditions that are most conducive to change rather than what causes change. Each of these conditions result in the kind of social tensions that eventually manifest change. Conditions that tend to spark change include:
1. A lack of cohesion among the various constituents of a social system.
2. The inability of groups/individuals to adjust to their social or physical environment.
3. Rigid and centralized social structures and institutions.
4. High population density & Social Diversity.
5. Creativity and Innovation.
“Planned Change” is a new development associated with the study of change that focuses on the methods of controlling and directing it. Change strategies fall into three categories: rational-empirical (believes that men and women will change on their own given the right conditions because they have rational and practical abilities), normative-reeducative (believe that change begins from the bottom up, not the top down and focuses on changing the individual as the best means to change the whole), & power-cohersive( commonly associated with political movements and social activism). Each of these categories have their own set of strategies to induce change.
RATIONAL-EMPIRICAL: Provide the best information, education, training & tools to assist individuals in implementing change on their own volition. Provide the right opportunities that produce people “in the right place at the right time” to allow for the needed changes. Allow and encourage outside professional help and welcome continued research and development. Promote idealistic thinking that stimulates creativity and “best-case” scenarios. A willingness to clarify issues and rethink a situation to promote greater overall understanding.
NORMATIVE-REEDUCATIVE: Improve the problem solving capacities of systems by encouraging individuals to be self-diagnosing. Release and foster growth in the individuals who make up a system.
POWER-COERCIVE: Using political institutions to achieve change by shifting the balance of power between social groups and ruling elites. Weakening and dividing the opposition through moral coercion or strategies of nonviolence.
Finally, I will list five learning disciplines that a system should emulate to engage in continuous innovation.
1. Personal Mastery: The practice of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies toward our goals, of nurturing patience, and always striving to be objective.
2. Analyzing Thinking Habits: Working with mental models to expose our own ways of thinking and to allow that thinking to be open to the influence of others.
3. Build a Shared Vision: Uncover shared ideas regarding the future that stimulate a genuine commitment and enrollment versus compliance.
4. Learn as a Team: This starts with dialogue, an ability to overcome defensiveness and other “destructive” behaviors that prevent learning — individually and collectively.
5. Think Systemically: This occurs by seeing patterns and connecting the “dots” of behavior and interrelated actions, which can take years to fully play out so as not to affect each other.
Portions of this newsletter were derived from Scott London’s article, “Understanding Change: The Dynamics of Social Transformation.”