From common sense to common purpose: ‘Change management’ scholarship, practice and my argument for belief

Jan 8, 2012 by

From common sense to common purpose:  ‘Change management’ scholarship, practice and my argument for belief

“I do …change”

‘So what do you do? What do you specialize in?’ I asked a new colleague of mine a month ago. “I do… change”, he replied without hesitation, but not automatically. He spoke the C-word with such inner conviction as if he said  ‘I specialize in… God’ (a business version of ‘I study theology’).   It sounded esoteric and disconcerting to me, and yet alluring and fascinating at the same time.  It was one of these words that you write with a capital level and speak out with a capital sigh before. It had to come from America, I thought. And yes, it did, the whole new branch of business scholarship ‘change management’ was planted at MIT in Boston, as I later found out. At that very first moment, however, I was completely ignorant.

In my head, questions crawled up the C-word, like ants, trying to deconstruct or to build it up, depending if they like it. Trained to categorize things, to analyze along stringent lines of argument, I could not help but be skeptical: Is it methodology or substance of change you do? To ‘do change’ (whatever that means, I thought) do you need to know what you change for (the message, ‘the end-station’) or do you just need to know the method (make sure the rails are in order and the train goes, wherever)?  What does it mean: to facilitate change, to empower people, to bring out their full potential? To make them think from the future, rather than from the past…?

And yet, despite the assault of questioning ants, I felt a liking for this man and his Change concept and I started to delve into it myself.

What’s new about change

Living in the times where the change-word burns on the lips of all and even businesses, normally the most change-orientated, need specialists for change to solve their corporate problems, you might think the phenomenon of change is new, that it has a new quality, or that it is a new trend to speak about it and to manage it (and thus make it into a business strategy).

The concept of change is not new. Already in the 6th century BC,Heraclitus said that change is the only constant thing and backed it up with a memorable image: you cannot step twice into the same river. And yet, the flowing river does not quite catch the reality of change in our times. Heraclitus’ image suggests to me that the waters of the river refill constantly, but the river itself carries on, unilaterally, in one direction. The riverbed remains unchanged.

In our turbulent times of political, technological and social revolutions, the riverbed itself changes. Structures of power change: the river parts into hundreds of streams running and spreading in a myriad of directions. People gather around causes and meanings not just around material things. Some initiatives ‘dry out’, others take on new waters, new members and become stronger. They start to affect the reality of things and enter the fluid structures of power. The interconnectedness, globalization and technologization of the world make change into a complex phenomenon in which many are affected and many can pull the strings.

The general principles of these structural changes have been widely described. However, few have gone deeper to analyze the mechanisms of these new power building structures. Why do people back up a certain cause, what makes them come together? How do you create a common purpose? These are also the questions that the change-scholarship poses. The answer to these questions is, to my mind, twofold: communication and culture. (to add two more ‘C’ to our Change concept, linguistic proof never fails you;).

Soft factors that make a difference

There are many fascinating ideas in the change scholarship, and many concerning both of these aspects. The ‘change scholars’ study parts of human life which have been ‘banned’ from ‘serious scholarship’ ever since the Enlightenment and the specialization and fragmentation of knowledge. Ever since then the academic focus has been on things that are measurable, graphable, calculatable, or simply scientific. The change scholars speak of ‘leadership from the heart’, ‘deeper levels of listening’, ‘opening oneself to others’, ‘emotions’, ‘aligning oneself with one’s purpose’…

The change-scholars often test their hypotheses on themselves as well as others, they live their scholarship. This is probably one of the most astounding shifts: the move beyond distance, the nagging skeptical questions, they point towards a direction, a method of a solution. Now, this is suspicious at first, when you come from a Communist country or from the tradition of the Enlightenment scholarship (and I feel I come from both, so suspicions double). But let us delve deeper and ask if the suspicions are justified…

Healthy distance or healthier belief?

Coming from a country where an ideology took its toll, I have for some time now put trust in ‘healthy distance’ and been skeptical of firm beliefs in and living one’s truths. Belief can go so wrong, can prove so fatal. Common sense, as well, you might argue. But the difference is that beliefs are firm, while common sense opinion are more tractable, common sense makes you readjust, rethink and reevaluate. It is this ‘re’–process that has been at work as a mental preservation mechanism of many intellectuals in Communism and other dictatorships.

However, I cannot see the dangers of ideology in ‘change scholarship’ despite its focus on belief. This is due to an additional emphasis on methods rather than ready-made recipes for success. At the foundation of this scholarship is, so it seems to me, a belief that the answers to current problems and directions of change come from the people. This in itself is not a guarantee of the rightness of these answers or a safety jacket from ideological straying. But what may act as such a jacket is the process of communication in which answers can and will be RE-adjusted. There will be no final answers, no brave new worlds, no dystopias when the belief in deep human communication and acting together takes over human minds. The variety of people’s opinions would save humanity from the ‘change’ towards dictatorship, towards one formalized unified meaning. Relying on human variety and on  communication as ‘checks and balances’  mechanism makes the ‘change’ scholars trustworthy and the suspicions that cropped up above, unjustified. I sit back, happy with my argument for belief (is that not a paradox?) Oh well.

American Culture and a broader context of change

The ‘change scholarship’ is part of the whole new turn that American universities are, I believe, leading in. The entering of ‘soft’ immeasurable concepts such as ‘energy’, ‘vibrancy’ into business and general scholarship could only, I believe, happen in a nation untouched by ideologies and thus spared from the considerations that I myself cannot escape. This blissful youth (that some call ignorance) of America makes it into a cradle of believe-in-concepts that are crucial and should be incorporated into the canon of study.

Another reason for the birth of change management in America is the pragmatic attitude of American scholars that I wrote about while in the US.  By pragmatism I mean at first the orientation towards solving real world problems, and blurring the line between life and academia. Scholars in America in general take their arguments much more personally than their European counterparts. What does it mean? I can still remember an author’s meeting at Yale with an American writer, William Deresiewicz, albeit a former English professor at an Ivy League uni who went off to write, at which he read from his book “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter”. As the title reveals, this man took Jane Austen not only as a representative of her age, as a historic figure, but as a mentor in his current personal life. He found structures in her books that he then applied onto his own life. He learnt from her book not just what the society of England thought and was like, but what he should think and how he should live. He took the universal and tried living it out.

When I saw his ‘strategy’, I first smiled to a friend at my right and she smiled back. It was an exchange of half- amused half-skeptical glances of two Europeans at an American campus. A common glance. The strategy seemed so naïve to me, in some ways so American, to take it all so personally, to apply, to live out, to make a change and not just analyze it. That’s not the way I read books and live my life. But then I thought, how free this man is, how childlike and how happy in his attitude. How eager not just to understand, to read between the lines (for this he could and mastered as well!), but to go beyond formal analysis – to live the lines, to make his reality according to his beliefs and Jane Austen’s work.

Similarly, change-scholars do not just to deconstruct an argument, but aim to empower people to construct a new reality and give them tools to foster this change. It’s a new kind of scholarship that fits into the times where the trend is observed away from analytical skepticism towards common purpose, the dark side of which is the spread sectarianism. The positive side is the reawakened need for meaning in life, which enters businesses as well. As Vaclav Havel put it: “Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” He drew a direction of change that more and more would probably subscribe to…

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