When leaders try to motivate their organizations for Change, we sometimes hear justifications like, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Or sometimes we hear, "If you keep doin' what you're doin', you'll keep gettin' what you're gettin'."
The reasoning is, "We're all unhappy with what's happening now, so let's try this new proposal — it's bound to be better." Plausible enough, until you think about it a little more carefully. Here are three reasons for doubt.
- We can't really do the same thing twice
- We might like to believe that an organization can reliably repeat a set of actions, but if people are involved, it isn't really true. First, management rarely has a level of control over the rest of the employees sufficient to justify the claim that exact repetition is possible. But more important, we as people don't have that kind of control of our own actions — we're humans, not robots. We have good days and bad. Precise repetition is impossible, and that's often one reason why results are so variable.
- The context is always changing
- Even if we could repeat a set of actions precisely, the context in which we act is always changing, and that affects the outcome. Imagine a football team believing that since they scored once using a certain play, all they have to do to win is to execute that same play exactly again and again. The folly of that belief is evident as soon as you recall that there's another team of thinking people on the field. And so it is in business.
- We can't know everything about the circumstances
- We're humans, not robots.
We have good days and
bad. Precise repetition
is impossible.Even if we could repeat our actions precisely, and even if the context were constant, we can't be certain that the initial circumstances are what we think they are, because we can't know all there is to know about them. That is, we choose our actions based on the situation, and that choice requires that we identify the situation. Since the world is far more complex than we can grasp, we use our intuition — we guess. And we can't be certain that we make the same guess in the same circumstances every time.
Given all this, a more accurate version of the slogan might be, "The definition of insanity is doing precisely the same thing over and over again, ensuring identical circumstances and a deterministic universe, and expecting different results." But then, that slogan isn't nearly facile enough for the intended effect.
One of the salient features of insanity (which isn't a clinical term anyway) must surely be an inability to grasp reality. It seems clear that the old saw defining insanity fails to grasp reality. When it comes to doing the same thing over and over again, expecting the same results might be even loopier than expecting different results. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Organizational Change:
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- In the past two years, your life has probably changed. Do you commute over the same route you did two
years ago? Same transportation? Same job? Same company? Same industry? Change is all around, and you're
probably pretty skilled at it. You can become even more skilled if you change how you change.
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- On Beginnings
- A new year has begun, and I'm contemplating beginnings. Beginnings can inspire, and sometimes lead to
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- Comfortable Ignorance
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our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
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- When Fear Takes Hold
- Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive
or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 23: Look Where You Aren't Looking
- Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events? Available here and by RSS on August 23.
- And on August 30: They Just Don't Understand
- When we cannot resolve an issue in open debate, we sometimes try to explain the obstinacy of others. The explanations we favor can tell us more about ourselves than they do about others. Available here and by RSS on August 30.
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