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 asymmetrysimple. 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 Top Next Issue
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Even 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.
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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.
- Conventional Foolishness
- Every specialization has a set of beliefs, often called "conventional wisdom." When these
beliefs are so obvious that they're unquestioned and even unnoticed, there's an opportunity to leap
ahead of the pack — by questioning the conventional wisdom.
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work,
our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting
reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
- Kinds of Organizational Authority: the Formal
- A clear understanding of Power, Authority, and Influence depends on familiarity with the kinds of authority
found in organizations. Here's Part I of a little catalog of authority classes.
- Do My Job
- A popular guideline in modern workplaces is "do your job." The idea is that if we all do our
jobs, success is most likely. But some supervisors demand that subordinates do their own jobs, plus
the jobs of their supervisors. It rarely works out well.
See also Organizational Change and Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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