|The Idea: Failure to learn and understand the often complex reasons for the status quo usually leads to simplistic, naive and unworkable solutions to problems..
Advocates of change, be they conservative war-mongers or progressives trying to redress atrocities at home or abroad, are usually quick to jump to conclusions about why the ‘needed’ change hasn’t occurred. And because they assume wrongly, about the cause of the problem, the appropriate solution, and the best process to implement it, such changes usually fail to get implemented, fail to stick, or get undone by the next well-intentioned change agent to come along.
Things are the way they are for a reason, and failure to understand what this reason is, is perilous. Our world is a complex adaptive system, and the reasons for the status quo are usually more subtle and multifarious than we expect.
Take the recent US elections for example. The fact that Bush, one of the least popular presidents in history, was ahead in the polls for a year before the election, and won the election despite a magnificent effort from his opponents to get the vote out, seems impossible for progressives to believe. How could so many people vote for such an incompetent, arrogant puppet of the corporatist elite? Progressives were so busy trying to build up their own candidates that they failed to understand why Bush appealed to a broad cross-section of Americans. Their incredulity, their inability to believe he would win, or understand how he could win, was their undoing.
After the election, progressives tried to find any excuse for this inability. It was Kerry’s fault, or his campaigns, he had ‘lost’ the election. Or the election was ‘stolen’ by fraudulent voting machines. They failed to understand Bush’s broad and consistent appeal despite his buffoonery, his nauseating smirk and preachy style, his inability to articulate even the most basic concept coherently, and his overt pandering to unpopular moneyed interests and unpopular religious extremists. And because they couldn’t understand, they didn’t believe the result — that their candidate lost.
The turnout in the progressive areas of the country was phenomenal, and the willingness of progressives to line up for hours to vote is a testament to their enduring passion for change. Part of the reason for the long line-ups was undoubtedly the lack of adequate polling facilities in poorer areas (infrastructure in poorer areas is always inadequate). But imagine what would have happened if conservatives had been as worked up as progressives in this election, and had stormed the polls the way progressives did. If Kucinich or some other truly progressive candidate was on the ballot, we would have seen a debacle of McGovernesque proportions instead of a squeaker. Understand, progressives, that there are tens of millions more conservatives who stayed home, because they preferred Bush but didn’t mind Kerry either. Understand why. Things are the way they are for a reason. You have nearly four years to do your homework, but if you don’t do it you’re going to lose again in 2008. And so far all I’ve seen, just like after the 2000 loss, is finger-pointing and excuses.
A Lakoffian analysis and reframing will help, but what is needed is a deep, honest assessment of why a majority of Americans begrudgingly support what Bush is doing to America. It’s not because Americans are dumb, ignorant, bamboozled, terrified or suckers for good framing, as convenient and easy as these reasons are for failing to understand the hearts and minds of suburban and rural Americans.
Let’s look at a second example, this one aimed at conservatives’ inability to understand that things are the way they are for a reason — suicide bombers. The trillions spent to secure America from the next attack, and the absurd black-and-white depiction of suicide bombers — pure evil, insane, brainwashed by ruthless fanatics, motivated by financial reward, and part of an organized conspiracy to ‘destroy America’ — shows that conservatives are, if that’s possible, even worse than progressives at understanding why things are the way they are. Many of the bombers are women, mothers. Their organization is so non-existent that the leaders of states who supposedly sanction suicide bombers’ actions are completely incapable of stopping them.
Do I know the reason why Bush remains so popular in America, and why suicide bombers do what they do, and are seen so sympathetically in many parts of the world? I wish. But I do know that the simplistic reasons put forward by their opposition, and parroted by the media, are just too pat, too easy, to be the right ones. They just don’t hold water. And nothing will change until those who want the change understand the real, complex, reasons for the status quo.
The same applies in business. Kotter is right in that successful business change efforts require a sense of urgency and executive sponsorship, but I’ve seen many change efforts that had both of these and still failed — for the same reason, that the proponents of the change failed to understand that things are the way they are for a reason, and what that reason was. Most business process re-engineering programs failed for that reason, and their failure led to the demise of BPR as a credible business tool. Most people in the business world, another complex adaptive system, want to do the right thing for their company, for selfish, for collegial and for altruistic reasons. When the systems and structures and processes of the organization are inadequate or dysfunctional, they find ways to ‘work around’ these problems, and keep trying until they find ways that work well. Consultants who design simplistic solutions like BPR, outsourcing and offshoring, usually overlook these reasons, and the consequence is that their naive solutions end up being less efficient and costlier than what they replaced.
So the simple question I challenge consultants, and entrepreneurs who are convinced they have a blockbuster solution that will take the world by storm with is: Why, in this business world with millions of intelligent and motivated people in it, has someone not already proposed and implemented this solution? The usual answer I get is another overly simplistic one: It may have been, but the execution was wrong — we’re going to do it right. And sometimes, maybe 10% of the time, that’s right. But the other 90% of the time they have failed to consider important information that would be evident only if they really understood why the status quo was what it was. And those 90% of change programs and new enterprises are doomed to fail.
There is a way of reducing this massive ‘cost of not knowing’. It’s called ‘cultural anthropology‘, and it’s a form of primary (face-to-face) research. Anthropologists try to understand why different human cultures do what they do. The cultural anthropology approach is one of suspending judgement and observing what is happening objectively and factually until the observer has a deep understanding of the behaviours and the reasons for them. This approach could be used by progressives to learn why so many in the suburbs and countryside support Bush and his ideas, by those who seek to make the world more secure to learn why the poor and oppressed and destitute resort to desperate and violent and suicidal means to express their discontent, and by advocates of business change to learn why the apparently unsatisfactory, dysfunctional or ‘inefficient’ process works the way it does.
Before we can bring about any meaningful and enduring change, in society, in a business, in a smaller community or even in our own personal behaviour, we need to take the time and make the effort to learn and understand thoroughly and objectively how and why things got to the present state, and have a profound appreciation of the validity of those reasons. If the answer is simple and obvious, it’s probably wrong.
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