| 5 min
The Larger Conversation (III): Breaking the Incremental Change-Cycle
Identifying the problem is more important than identifying the solution, because the accurate representation of the problem leads to the solution. –Albert Einstein.
To open the stage for more groundbreaking change and transformation, it is essential to have deeper and more meaningful conversations across opinion lines. Honest dialogue beyond polarization, moralizing, or completely ignoring one another. On this basis, and regardless which side one is on, finding common ground on what makes the status quo and incremental change so sticky seems key on the path to sustainable action in business and beyond.
The following system features seem particularly relevant:
- Complexity. Relying on an economic model tied to notions of infinite growth and profit–maximization, we have created a world so optimized and driven by efficiency metrics that the complexity that has emerged as a by-product is nothing we can handle anymore. Fragile supply chains, the risks of untamed exponential tech, and the consequences of our growth obsession in combination with a total disregard for nature and the planet’s natural boundaries are examples of that. The resulting challenges are global in scope and do not stop at national borders or at the professional demarcation lines we have invented. They are nothing we can address in a meaningful way based on routine thinking, business as usual and a deeply rooted belief in quick fixes.
- Uniformity. Most of it has crept in slowly and steadily, and by now the entire system is geared towards the dominant paradigm: Optimization, efficiency and speed. It is difficult to see and acknowledge because it’s all we know. Business is deeply focused and countless MBA cohorts are trained to steer corporations accordingly. Little time is „wasted“ outside tightly defined corridors. The prevailing cultural narrative firmly ties human to economic success, and incentive systems are designed accordingly. The education system is optimized to meet the requirements and needs of the big machine, backing the trend to ever greater uniformity, and functioning effectively in narrowly defined areas of responsibility. As a result, at a time when we are in urgent need to think and develop solutions beyond business as usual, we fall short and fail to create the minds we need to solve the problems of our times.
- Specialization. Another side-effect of the growth paradigm is the inherent compulsion to optimize every step along the value chain. It fuels fragmentation and has led to the triumph of the expert. Working in silos, speaking expert jargon has become the norm. Challenges are mostly handled by the silo supposedly closest to the issue with little attention given to the often inherently interconnected nature. This leads to narrow approaches and inadequate solutions, with the real problem frequently missed altogether. In the race to ever more specialization, the benefit of the generalist has largely been forgotten. We have failed to train and install systems thinkers alongside siloed experts, and as a result, have lost track of how the big machine actually works. In addition, we lack essential transformation skills that are mostly considered unchic and utterly underrated in their importance, namely everything that connects the dots: Coordination, true cooperation, as well as (silo-)translation and execution skills. In summary: The strong bias towards specialization results in a severe imbalance of skills and a lot of “untrained muscles”. It contributes significantly to our inability to solve anything much in a sustainable way.
- Inertia. Decades of relative stability have had a tranquilizing effect on many companies and industries. Moderate adjustments mainly fueled by internal competition and not rocking the boat too much were good enough to stay on course. The notion of sustaining and nurturing innovation leadership faded with every decade since these companies were founded, and the focus to get ahead shifted to climbing the power hierarchy. Figuring out how to win at power hierarchy games and administering and protecting the status quo eventually became far more important than being a particularly skilled innovator. It infected entire organizations and increasingly attracted people drawn to power hierarchy games.
- Innovation Repellent. When the winds or even tsunamis of change hit – like they do now and have done for some time – it is very difficult for these organizations to wake up. Not only have they lost most of their innovative DNA outside narrowly defined corridors. Organizations instinctively repel innovators who try to bring profound and rapid change and thus pose a real threat to the status quo. This can often be observed when traditional companies try to work with start-ups or hire innovation officers from more advanced sectors. A number of industries have been disrupted beyond recognition and numerous digital players are meanwhile dominating large parts of the market landscape, as a result.
- New Players – old paradigm. Digital players did initially arrive not only with a lot of new goods and services. They also seemed committed to novel, apparently more noble missions, like connecting people socially or organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful. Along the way, however, they got absorbed by the big machine. They fell for optimizing for ad revenue which meant optimizing time on site. This in turn fueled unprecedented levels of political polarization, radicalization and breakdown of sense-making at large. More and more they started to resemble their traditional counterparts. Not only by falling for the accumulation of immense wealth, or because it turned out that they are by no means immune to the tranquility gene when they mature. Most importantly, they have also forgotten large parts of the noble mission they originally set out with to serve society.
If a factory is demolished but the mental framework that created it is left in place, then that mental framework will simply produce another factory of the same kind. If a revolution destroys a government, but the pattern of thought that put in place that government is left intact, then that pattern will repeat itself. There is so much talk about systems. And so little understanding. –Robert Pirsig