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:
- Look Before You Leap
- When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even
in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll
them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts.
One approach that works well is the simulation.
- Reactance and Micromanagement
- When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden,
or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain
some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
- The Expectation-Disruption Connection
- In technology-dependent organizations, we usually invest in infrastructure as a means of providing new
capability. But mitigating the risk of disruption is a more powerful justification for infrastructure
investment, if we understand the Expectation-Disruption Connection.
- Organizational Roots of Toxic Conflict
- When toxic conflict erupts in a team, cooperation ends and person-to-person attacks begin. Usually we
hold responsible the people involved. But in some cases, the organization is the root cause, and then
replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
- Way Over Their Heads
- For organizations in crisis, some but not all their people understand the situation. Toxic conflict
can erupt between those who grasp the problem's severity and those who don't. Trying to resolve the
conflict by educating one's opponents rarely works. There are alternatives.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
- When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
- And on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
- We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.
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