Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 11, Issue 44;   November 2, 2011: Good Change, Bad Change: I

Good Change, Bad Change: I

by

Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
Baron Joseph Lister (1827-1912)

Baron Joseph Lister (1827-1912), who discovered the importance of antiseptic procedures in surgery. Before his innovative work, infections were believed to be caused by airborne agents — "bad air." Surgeons were not required to wash hands or instruments between patients. Meanwhile, midwives, who at the time did wash hands and instruments, had been experiencing infant mortality rates much lower than surgeons. This fact went unexplained until Lister's work. Photo courtesy U.S. National Institutes of Health, from a collection entitled Images from the History of Medicine in the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

On October 14, 2011, the Apple iPhone 4S first became available for sale. Lines formed at Apple stores around the world, and pre-release sales of a million units broke all records for mobile phones. Though no buyers had yet seen it, they felt that the new phone was a welcome change.

On September 21, 1867, the British Medical Journal published a pioneering paper entitled, "On the Antiseptic Principle in the Practice of Surgery," by British surgeon Joseph Lister (1827-1912), in which he advocated sterilization of instruments to prevent infection following surgery. His methods were rapidly adopted throughout Britain. Not so in the United States. The failure of the U.S. medical community to embrace the changes Lister advocated was most unfortunate for President James Garfield, who, on July 2, 1881, was the victim of an assassination attempt in which two bullets struck him. Efforts by surgeons to trace one of the bullets, using their unwashed fingers and unsterilized instruments, led to massive infections. Garfield finally succumbed to a heart attack on September 19.

One change was overwhelmingly welcomed; the other shunned. Why? It's an important question, because our assessments of the net value of changes can be most unreliable. Here's Part I of a catalog of factors that can distort our assessment of changes.

Inability to grasp circumstantial complexity
All change involves both losses and gains, but between them there is a fundamental asymmetry. When we experience a loss, it's usually a loss of something we know well. When we experience a gain, it's usually a gain of something we don't yet fully appreciate. Because we don't have it, it's difficult to understand the full scope of its benefits.
Like all circumstances, the full circumstances of the new status quo are complex. Until we fully adapt to the change, we tend to understand our losses more easily than our gains. That's one reason why our assessment of the net value of a coming change can tend to bias us against it.
The seductiveness of simplicity
Some changes appear All change involves both
losses and gains, but
between them there is a
fundamental asymmetry
simple. Whether by design or by happenstance, these changes seem to be minor, or they promise to simplify dramatically some parts of our lives. We tend to welcome these changes even before we understand their full implications.
The error we make here is confusing the change, which seems simple, with the circumstances surrounding the change, which are always complex. This error is responsible for many of the mishaps we call unintended consequences. For most systems, which are far more complex than we appreciate, changing one element can ripple through the system in ways we can understand only after the system demonstrates them to us.

In Part II, we'll examine how social factors can influence our assessment of the goodness of a change.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Good Change, Bad Change: II  Next Issue

Order from AmazonEven though the U.S. medical community spurned Lister's methods, some were convinced. In 1879, Listerine was first formulated. At the time, it was intended as a solution for sterilizing surgical instruments. For more about Joseph Lister, see his biography in Wikipedia. See Wikipedia also for more about Listerine. For the story of James Garfield, see the new book by Candice Millard: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

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More articles on Organizational Change:

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When we undertake change, we're usually surprised at the effort and cost required. Much of this effort and cost is necessary because of the nature of the processes we're changing. What can we do differently to make change easier in the future?
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When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us, and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
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Sometimes changing organizations goes smoothly. More often, it doesn't. Whatever methodology we use — and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard, what's happening? What makes change hard?
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When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance." But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
R.M.S. Lusitania coming into port, possibly in New York.Obstacles to Finding the Reasons Why
When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?

See also Organizational Change and Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityComing 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.
"The Thinker," by Auguste RodinAnd 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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