Exploring The Tension Of Change

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“The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore. But some systems are more adept than others at exploring those possibility spaces.”  -Steve Johnson ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’

As we begin to really look at the processes and tensions that lead to and arise from change in our organizations, awareness of both is going to be extremely vital to creating any type of sustained forward momentum.  We will have to fully aware of not only where we’ve been, but where we’re at, and where we’re going.  As well as being cognizant of the internal and external forces that apply pressure and push and pull upon an organization throughout the change process (i.e., silos, agendas, politics, dysfunction, power struggles, etc.).  Inability to engage this awareness, can leave an organization and it’s leadership blindsided and reeling, hobbled by realities they were unable to acknowledge.  Often slowing, halting or even extinguishing the best of change initiatives.

Awareness of those internal and external forces that inhibit change in any organization are paramount to progress.  We must be ever mindful of the harsh realities of our organization, if we are to support processes that will create momentum towards sustained and lasting change.

For this to happen, we will have to engage an “AND” mindset.  Too often we allow change to fall into an ‘either or’ proposition.  As we engage change, it is not about separating the tensions inherent in this process, it is finding ways to make those tensions work effectively and simultaneously.  Too often we choose one or the other, when BOTH are needed.  Or as Roger Martin shares in the ‘Opposable Mind’ this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald…“The test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function…”

Which means that change is neither a one size fits all proposition, or a fully differentiated and individualized proposition.  It requires BOTH.  It requires AND.  It is one size fits all AND differentiated and individualized at the same time.  It is everyone working towards one vision, but everyone working towards it from a very individualized position of; knowledge, understanding, position, readiness, etc.

So as we approach this process of change, we will have to learn to embrace and engage tensions simultaneously, rather than pushing out one for the other.  Difficult AND necessary.  As we work to blend the idea of ‘one size fits all’ vs. ‘individualized and differentiated’ simultaneously, two ideas we can begin to work with are our understandings of organizational paradigms and the “adjacent possible.” 

Let’s begin with our organizational paradigms.  Today’s leaders need the awareness that takes them to the truth of their organization.  Be that, good or bad.  The first step in gaining that awareness is accepting the honest reality of the organization and not shying away from that truth.  Begin by determining; Is your organization proactive, collaborative, engaged, trustful, and healthy?  Or is your organization reactive, siloed, disengaged, distrustful, and unhealthy?  Just remember, it is seldom an ‘either or’ proposition, it is most often a blend of BOTH.  But awareness begins by determining what you really are…

To help in determining this awareness, Frederic Laloux, the author of ‘Reinventing Organizations’ attributes colors and names to the organizational paradigms that have and still exist in our world, such as…”Impulsive-Red, Conformist-Amber, Achievement-Orange, and Pluralistic-Green…”  The one awareness that the author shares about each of these paradigm shifts or “breakthroughs” in how organizations have shifted, is that it has taken previous knowledge, as well as gained knowledge, to move from one paradigm to the next.  That the learning built from the one, leads to the knowledge that allows us to create and shift to the other.

Just like the myth of the ‘aha’ moment, the breakthroughs that lead to shifting paradigms in organizations comes from the hard work and learning that has led up to that breakthrough point.  As well as understanding where you’ve come from, where you’re at, and where you’re trying to go.  It is that knowledge and awareness that leads to those pivotal breakthrough moments of change for people and organizations.

So as we consider our paradigm reality, we also want to embrace the idea of AND’s, of simultaneous tensions.  Which leads to the awareness of the “adjacent possible”.   A concept that Steve Johnson explores in his work, ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’.

The “adjacent possible” provides awareness in how we break down the boundaries that move us towards ongoing growth towards a vision, both wholly AND individually.  Too often in organizations, we try to take (jump) people to a place without building the requisite understandings that not only allow them to make those steps forward, but to even comprehend and understand what we are trying to accomplish by moving in that direction. Think of it like this…

Imagine that you have just walked into an incredibly large house.  A house you have seen, but have never visited or been in previously.  Your only knowledge of the house, beyond the what you have seen of the outside, is the room that you are currently sitting in.  So, to learn more, you have to explore and see what each room has to offer.  Especially if you want to gain an understanding of the whole house.  Of how big it is, how many rooms it has, how it is decorated, the view it offers, etc.  And to do this, you have to go room by room.

Unfortunately, many organizations fail to realize that they are the house and they spend their time trying to get people to understand the layout of the house without taking them through the rooms.  Without taking them through the whole house.  Or they try to jump them from the living room to the upstairs loft to speed up the process.  The problem is that it will never work.  It leaves gaps and misunderstandings.  It distorts the understanding of the layout of the house and what truly makes up the entirety of the house.  And you can only gain that by going from room to room, by opening each door and taking the knowledge from the previous room into the new room.  And sometimes you will get lost or lose your bearings, which requires you to return to previous rooms to gain back what was forgotten or lost.

But as you travel from room to room, your learning of the house expands, your learning of the layout improves, and you begin to see a much bigger picture of the house.  You begin to understand that there are many more doors to open, and with each door opened, your knowledge and understanding expand, because you are taking the previous learning with you into the next room.  It is an continuous unfolding and building in unison. It is an AND….

Or as Steve Johnson shares in ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.  Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.”

So, as you begin to think of change and the many myriads of forces that you will face.  Understand that awareness will be paramount throughout the process on so many fronts.  And two of those fronts to keep in mind will be an awareness of the past, the current and the future paradigms AND the “adjacent possible”.

We must come to realize that we can’t hopscotch our people or our organizations through any process of change.  We have to build it through learning and hard work towards those breakthrough and ‘aha’ moments that push us into new spaces and new arenas.  And that means that we create the learning and knowledge along the way that allow each person, in there own way, from their own readiness, to push the organization forward towards the vision.

The thing to understand is that this is very much about a vision, but not necessarily a destination.  For as we move through paradigm shifts AND explore the “adjacent possible”…the process will continue to expand and change.  It is an ongoing process that can only be fueled by learning, for when learning stops, so does the process.  Our organizations will slowly begin to stagnate and stall.  Without new learning, we fail to open doors to new rooms, and the unfolding stops.  And instead of becoming what we can be, we will remain what we are.

“All of us live inside our own private versions of the adjacent possible. In our work lives, in our creative pursuits , in the organizations that employ us, in the communities we inhabit— in all these different environments, we are surrounded by potential new configurations, new ways of breaking out of our standard routines.”  -Steve Johnson ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’

Quotes and references from…

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation. Riverhead Books, New York. 2010.

Laloux, Frederic.  Reinventing Organizations: A Guide To Creating Organizations Inspired By The Next Stage Of Human Consciousness.  Nelson Paker, Belgium. 2014.


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