Pre-Symposium Thoughts on Change

As we prepare for our Spring 2008 Symposium next week, I’ve been reading up on the subject of change so that I’ll be able to make insightful-sounding comments about it to interlocutors during the cocktail hours. But behind any rhetoric I might spout over scotch lies a great deal of uncertainty about nature of change.!@!

For a minute, imagine that you could somehow transport a group of people alive 50 years ago to the present day. My guess is that they’d be amazed by all the changes that exist today – for a little while. After a short period, though, they’d probably realize that things weren’t that different. For instance, they might be initially astounded by the number of channels on television (not to mention the considerably more vulgar content of the programs), but they’d soon learn the Big Three networks are still around and that half-hour sitcoms and game shows are still popular. They also might wonder why hip hop was considered music, but they would find the youthful rebellion that drives its popularity familiar.

Additionally, they’d be surprised to find out that an African American and a woman were a good bet to win the next presidential election. Yet they’d also see that the two major political parties that existed in their day are still around and that they’re divided along much the same ideological lines (i.e., liberal and conservative). They would be astonished by the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc, but they also would discover that NATO survives to this day and that the United States still leads the developed “Western” world against threats from the supposedly backward and despotic “East.” And so on.


I’m not trying to make some grand point about how nothing has really changed at all in the past half century. For example, our imaginary 1950s cohort would likely have no preconceived notion of the desktop computer and the Internet, which are truly revolutionary. (However, they might ask where the flying cars were and when they could catch the next rocket to Mars.) My point is that change is typically neither sweeping nor predictable. And while organizations and nations may change at a rapid pace, human nature is much more static.

Many of us – myself included – wax breathlessly about our transforming, “flattening” world and the speed of business and all that without really giving much thought to two key aspects of change:

1. More often than not, change is glacially slow and very uneven.
2. For many people, change is undesirable because it can produce as many (if not more) bad results as good.

The term “Faustian bargain” is sometimes applied to major changes. This refers to a significant trade off, where you give up present benefits and control in exchange an uncertain future, which frequently isn’t what you envisioned. In other words, it’s taking a risk, and risk – rather than reward – is the very heart of change.

George Washington once said that government was like fire: a dangerous servant and a fearful master. The same could be said of change.

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