Saturday, May 7, 2011
Change management and Kant’s four questions – part 1
18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant tried to answer four questions in his philosophy:
1. What can I know?
2. What do I have to do?
3. What can I hope for?
4. What is the human being?
In the next four posts on this blog I’d like to apply these questions to change management in a practical manner, so as to possibly get you thinking about change management from a different perspective. Isn’t that what management, leadership, and life is all about: being able and willing to see, appreciate, and use different perspective. To use them to your advantage and broaden your vision. To think outside your box?
Question 1: What can I know?
You don’t have to dig very deep to realize that knowledge, even in science, is not set in stone. All human knowledge is pretty uncertain, whether it be business knowledge, knowledge in the field of medicine or any other body of knowledge. Ask the experts and you regularly get as many ‘truths’ as there are experts. Think of brain tumor treatment, with different advice from different medical experts. Think of the best possible marketing strategy to safe a business from going under. Or think of a country’s economic strategy and measures to regain consumer and investor confidence and decrease unemployment. Based on new research, the food and dieting advice of today might be contradicted next year. And when scientists are trying to prove something, the absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of the absence of something.
All great thinkers, consultants, strategists, and theorists are right a little bit. They all, or most of them, grasp one (usually small) part or sliver of the truth and of the complex, intertwined reality in which we live. And that shouldn’t really be surprising, because reality has always been complex - before globalization and much further back. The human body, an organization, a country, the world is one complicated organism that is connected to everything else in the world. One small change somewhere, creates a chain of changes in many other areas. How can we possibly think to be able to know all the variables and the interrelationships between them? And how can we expect people to not worry about the many (possible) effects of the changes that executives are implementing?
Context changes everything. Small changes can have a great impact, and so does your knowledge of change and implementing change, so does your knowledge of what goes on around you, your knowledge of the data you gather (and which ones are you gathering anyway?), much depending on where you look, what you see, and the perspective you take. So if it is hard to know anything for certain for you, as a change leader, than how can you expect your employees, whom you wish to participate fully in the change process and to understand and fully embrace the proposed changes? You might be better off accepting ambiguity, uncertainties, worries, opposing perspectives, paradoxes, and doubts not just as inevitable, but as valuable sources of energy and of information. Not something to feel threatened by but something to use to its full potential. Of course, you want to keep your focus on where you want to end up, but keep in mind that the route might not be as set as you had thought or wished for. And without promoting jumping from one goal to the next or abandoning well thought out strategies, realize that even your destination might have to be revised. My advice: yes, do use the knowledge gathered through evidence-based practices. Yes, do persevere in face of set-backs. Yes, do go out of your way to reach your goals but never ever lose sight of new information, other perspectives, and valuable information often disguised as ‘resistance’.
So what can you really know? A lot and very little at the same time. I know that change is inevitable for people as well as for organizations and that knowledge is both prerequisite and part of the change. All we do is change and adapt. Of course, change management is an important tool in dealing with a progressing world, in staying ahead of the competition, or in saving your company from going under. I know that things change all the time, through and despite all our strategic thinking and acting. And I know that it takes a great deal of curiosity, courage, self-confidence, and a good sense of adventure to live and act according to the above polarity that is inherent in leading and in change management. Enjoy the bumpy ride!