Is Incremental Change Good Enough?

I was at an event last week that left me uplifted and energized with undercurrents of irritation and discomfort.  It’s the mix I look for when I attend an event because it signals that I’m learning outside my comfort zone.

I attended an SDX (Systemic Design Exchange) event in which panelists candidly shared their Epic Tries: Innovation Stories from the Field for the first part of the afternoon.  In the latter half of the afternoon, SDXers broke into smaller groups to discuss a question or problem posed by a panelist   I like this format because it gives participants an opportunity to contribute their ideas and expertise to the panelists.  Near the end of the afternoon, we became one large group again to debrief the conversations and what had been accomplished.

However there was one phrase that kept bubbling to the surface that both resonated with me and frustrated me.   It was the idea of incremental change.

Incremental change, as I am taken to understand, is created by seizing opportunities to make micro-changes that eventually coalesce into more substantial change over time. On the surface it makes sense.   It’s easier to move a few smaller boxes that one huge box.  Incremental change is actually a very smart strategy and its very difficult to argue its logic.

Unfortunately, my experience working in government has taught me that the lasting impact of incremental change is undermined by three corrosive forces; lack of coordination, indecision, and apathy.

I have witnessed situations in which one team will make an incremental change, be high-fiving each other while another team is unintentionally countering their change with one of their. This happens all too often in government.  Sometimes I hear the question; didn’t we fix this problem last year?  From year to year we haven’t really ‘moved the needle’ by any lasting measure.

I know a few middle managers in government that really want to do things better but are fossilized into inaction because of indecision above them.  I’m sure some of these indecision-makers would appreciate the freedom to try new things but they have to be mindful of making a ‘career limiting move’.  In the meantime, the idea being considered becomes stale and losses its relevance.  An opportunity to make an incremental change passes and people move on.

At this point you might be tempted to say “that’s the way it is in government”.  When I first joined government I was astonished at how casually people accepted this as a reason for not doing better.  This apathy is the most lethal killer of any kind of change and signals someone that believes doing better is not possible.  Worse, it signals a person who believes doing better is no longer their responsibility.  The system is the people who run it.

My apologies.  I see this post has taken a turn towards hopelessness.  But I think hopelessness is how many people in government feel as they tirelessly and continuously push an agenda of change from their cubicles.   I’ve seen it in the faces of people around meeting tables who know they will return to dealing with the mindless, soul-crushing minutiae that matters urgently today but is forgotten tomorrow.

But not all is lost.  The people I meet at SDX refurbish hope that change is possible.   I agree that change is hard.  But it is also inevitable.  The greatest potential for meaningful incremental change comes from intentional coordination and integration of our efforts.  This leaves me with three questions to which there may not be answers. Yet.

  1. What can I do to coordinate people and their incremental changes?
  2. How can I access and support indecision-makers so they feel comfortable transitioning to decision-makers?
  3. How do I influence others to shift from the ‘way it’s always been’ to the ‘way it can be’?

The Way We’ve Always Done It

How do you feel when you start a new position with a new team?   For me it has always been a mix of excitement and awkwardness.  Mostly awkwardness. Because I don’t know the unwritten rules of the place and I don’t want to make an embarrassing faux pas on my first few days.

To explain this, Gray would say the team I am joining has a shared set of beliefs they use to navigate their work relationships called the bubble of belief.  Beliefs I do not yet possess because I don’t have their shared experience of working together.  The kitchen is a perfect example.  On one occasion before attending a meeting,  I had gone to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.  I picked a cup from the cupboard and boiled water like I have thousands of times.   Unfortunately I turned up to the meeting using the boss’s favorite cup.  I could feel a tremor of discomfort when I entered the room because everyone else knew not to use that cup.

Bubbles of belief exist in every corner of our lived experience.  They are shared maps that groups use to navigate relationships in the reality they co-create.  Unfortunately, they are maps that occasionally lead us over a cliff too.

Have you ever heard this phrase at work “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it”?  

It’s always been done that way and continues to be done that way because “….new information from outside the bubble of belief is discounted, or distorted, because it conflicts with the version of reality that exists inside the bubble” (p.45, Liminal Thinking).  Gray calls this self-sealing logic.  There are many examples of how this type of thinking has had disastrous effects. Blackberry couldn’t see past the keyboard design while Apple gobbled up their market share with the touchscreen.  In 2000, the Blockbuster CEO passed up the opportunity to purchase Netflix for $ 50 million saying it was a niche company.  Netflix is now worth more than $30 billion. I wonder how many times these words were uttered in the Northlands boardroom while Katz busily outmaneuvered them.

Why is it so difficult for people to see past their self-sealing belief bubbles?

Gray points out that people evaluate a new idea in two ways; internally (does it make sense?) and externally (can I test it?).  Most new ideas fail to get past the internal test because they challenge the bubble of belief and so they automatically do not make sense and therefore do not need to be tested.  A video streaming service must have seemed impossible to the CEO of the most successful video rental business so therefore there is no need to test what it’s potential could be.

Think back to a time when you came forward with a fantastic, innovative, can’t miss new idea that was dismissed by the group.  Was the groups defending its’ bubble of belief?  Do you think your new idea challenged group identity?

Conversely, take a minute and think about what happens when your beliefs are challenged.  How do you defend them?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 5:”Beliefs defend themselves.  Beliefs are unconsciously by a bubble of self-sealing logic, which maintains them even when they are invalid, to protect personal identity and self-worth.” (P. 49, Liminal Thinking)

How Our Beliefs Limit Us

Last Friday, my wife and I ventured into downtown. You could tell it was game night.  People were clad in their orange and blue on the LRT, in the streets and in the restaurants.   As it happened we would be joining the crowds as the Oilers took on the Nashville Predators.  When describing the experience of attending the game to friends and family I find myself saying “It was exciting for an Oilers game”.  Which really means “In the past, most of the excitement at an Oilers game came from the concession stands, so I’m not ready to believe they have a legitimate chance at winning a game”.

It’s a strange belief to maintain.  The Oilers have a new Stanley Cup winning General Manager (Peter Chiarelli), a tested, stable coaching staff (Todd McLellan), the brightest player to enter the game since Sidney Crosby(Connor McDavid), numerous other amazing young players (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Adam Larrson, Darnell Nurse, Leon Draisaitl), quality free agent signings (Milan Lucic), a reliable goaltender (Cam Talbot) and a fabulous new arena. The Oilers have a chance to make the playoffs this year rather than being mathematically eliminated by December.   However, in the face of such evidence, I continue to believe they have a greater chance of losing then they do of winning.

Gray calls this a limiting belief.  It’s a belief that limits my ability to see other possibilities.  I can’t believe the Oilers could be a winning team because I still believe they are a losing team.

Being a liminal thinker requires us to identify our limiting beliefs and look beyond them to the possibilities they obscure from our view.

What beliefs do you have about yourself that limit your potential?  What beliefs do you have about others that could be limiting their potential?

 

Liminal Thinking Principle 4: Beliefs create blind spots.  Beliefs are tools for thinking and provide rules for action, but they can also create artificial constraints that blind you to valid possibilities” (p.39, Liminal Thinking)

It’s Not You. It’s Both of Us!

As part of our kitchen renovation, we needed to replace our dishwasher.  I checked all the usual places (Home Depot, Costco, Trail Appliances, Leons, and The Brick) but couldn’t find the quality I wanted for the money I had left in my budget.  One day I was on my way home and came across a local independent appliance store and decided to see what they could offer even though I was certain I wouldn’t risk buying anything from them. My belief, based on my past experiences and the experiences of others, is that local independent appliance stores are dodgy disreputable businesses that take advantage of unsuspecting innocent customers.  

But they offered an affordable price on the model I wanted so I took the risk.

When I opened the door to load the dishwasher for the first time, I pulled out the top rack and it fell out of its rails nearly breaking the dishes below. So I called for service which was surprisingly prompt but the repairman came with the wrong piece to fix it so he would have to come back.  After scheduling and rescheduling service for nearly three weeks, we finally set the date for the following Thursday morning.  

On Thursday morning the repairman calls to remind me that he will be at my house in the afternoon.  My first thought was “See, this is why you don’t buy from local independent appliance stores!  You get what you pay for!”

But then I remind myself that I am embarking on the Liminal Thinking journey and recall Gray’s story web.

“When two or more learning loops interact, they form a system of belief or behaviour I call a story web; a shared world that is co-created by the people who participate in it.  This shared world can seem as if it is just ‘the way it is’ but really it is just one of many possible realities.” (p.27, Liminal Thinking)  

In this story web there are two learning loops interacting; mine and the repairman’s (for a reminder of the leaning loop, look at The Liminal Learning Loop).  At this moment on the phone I have a choice between two possible learning loops; the doom loop or the delight loop.

Doom loop; repair dishwasher (need) – appliance store is trying to avoid my requests for service because they are dodgy (belief) – speak abruptly/harshly expressing my frustration to the repairman (action) – referred to the appliance store/dishwasher is not fixed (result).  

Delight loop;  repair dishwasher (need) – credible appliance store with integrity (belief) – ask questions to help them solve the scheduling snafu (action)  – repairman offers to come later in the afternoon to accommodate my schedule/ dishwasher is fixed (result).

Keep in mind the repairman is going through his learning loop at the same time and based on my response can choose to experience a doom loop or delight loop.   As we navigate the scheduling problem, we are co-creating our reality.  

Two stories/realities are possible based on the beliefs and actions of both participants.  The doom loop is easier because it reinforces my original belief that local appliance stores are dodgy.  The delight loop is more difficult because it forces me to move beyond the reality I know instinctively (my beliefs) and co-create a reality I have no map to navigate.  

“This is the power of the story web.  Changing stories can change reality” (p.26 Liminal Thinking) 

Thankfully we both chose the delight loop.  It meant I had to end my appointment earlier than expected and he had to stay a bit later than he had expected but the dishwasher was fixed.  Even more importantly, it demonstrated to me how we can co-create the reality we want and that ‘the way it is’ can be changed.

Liminal Thinking Principle 3: “Beliefs create a shared world.  Beliefs are the psychological material we use to co-create, a shared world, so we can live, work and do things together.  Changing a shared world requires changing its underlying beliefs” p.33, Liminal Thinking

Unpacking Beliefs

My belief is not reality.  My constructed contractor Pete is not the real contractor Pete.  Seems very straightforward and even obvious.  The challenge emerges when trying to apply this to practice.  To begin thinking liminally, if I understand Gray correctly, is to understand how my belief about contractor Pete is formed.  To help understand this process Gray introduces the Pyramid of Belief (based on the Ladder of Inference) in which Reality forms the base and The Obvious sits on top.

Reality:  As mentioned in Is Contractor Pete Really an Assshole?, it begins with acknowledging reality as unknowable.  It is not possible to know everything about everything. I can’t know the contractor Pete that exists in reality because I can’t know everything he does and thinks.

Experiences: My experiences of reality through my senses form the basis of my beliefs.  This includes everything I perceive from reality whether I can recall it or not.  How I perceived contractor Pete through my senses generates my experiences of him including the things I noticed and the things I didn’t.

Attention:  Because our experiences of reality are so vast, our brains need a means of prioritizing the information we encounter.  This means we pay attention to some pieces of information and disregard others.  When I’m craving a salty snack my attention is drawn towards the Old Dutch chips rather than the M&Ms, pasta, or canned beans in the pantry.  When I first encountered contractor Pete to do the installation in the kitchen I noticed his walk, his dress, the way he talked, the way he treated his assistant, the way he treated his tools, and the way he treated the materials he was installing.

Theories and Judgments:  Based on what I noticed about contractor Pete, I began to form theories about what to expect.  Can I expect a quality installation based on how he treats the materials and his tools?  What can I expect from him if I have a problem in the future, based on how he treats his assistant and how he chooses to answer my questions?

Beliefs:  Experiences, attention, theories and judgements are ways to make reality manageable by molding it into beliefs I use to navigate its complexity. My belief that contractor Pete is an unprofessional asshole allows me to simplify our interaction.  It also simplifies what I can expect from him in the future making it easier for me to ‘never use his business again”.  “Beliefs are the foundational model that you use to navigate the world” (p.18, Liminal Thinking)

The Obvious:  My pyramid shapes the contours of my ‘obvious’ otherwise known as my version of reality.  “Learning how to navigate this ‘below the obvious’ construction  zone is one of the core skills of liminal thinking” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

You’ll notice I did not go into a tediously biased narrative about what contractor Pete did to earn his moniker (unprofessional asshole).  This was intentional.  My goal is not to have you simply agree or disagree with my obvious.  Instead my goal is to think liminally about what happened so I don’t have a repeated experience with another ‘contractor Pete’ in the future.

“Liminal thinking requires you to become more conscious of that invisible belief construction process, in yourself and others” (p.19, Liminal Thinking)

 

Liminial Thinking Principle 2:  “Beliefs are created.  Beliefs are constructed hierarchically, using theories and judgements,  which are based on selected facts and personal, subjective experience ” (p.21, Liminal Thinking)

Is Contractor Pete Really an Asshole?

Over the past few months my wife and I have been renovating our kitchen.  During the process we had two contractors.  Contractor Joe was communicative, open, and pleasant.  Contractor Pete was aggressive, defensive and hostile.  Choosing a path towards becoming a liminal thinker compelled me to pause and look more closely at why there was such a difference between the two contractors.  It would be easy (simple) to conclude that Pete was asshole and Joe wasn’t.  Joe was a professional and Pete wasn’t. But being a liminal thinker requires thinking beyond the simple. The goal is to think differently so I can do things better.

“Liminal thinking is the art of creating change by understanding, shaping, and redrawing beliefs”  (p. xxiii, Liminial Thinking).

If I want to avoid experiencing unprofessional asshole contractor Pete in the future (change), I need to understand, shape and redraw my beliefs about him.   So how do I proceed?

It starts with realizing that the contractor Pete existing in reality is unknowable.  It’s simply not possible for me to know every action and thought contractor Pete has ever had.  So this leaves me with my belief about Contractor Pete.  Gray illustrates this so clearly by asking you to think of an elephant.  Now that you have an elephant in your mind, is there an actual, real elephant in your head?  The elephant in your mind is a construction of an elephant based on your past experiences with elephants.

The unprofessional asshole contractor Pete is my construction based on my experience with him.  He is not a fact in reality.  The unprofessional asshole version of Contractor Pete only exists in my mind like the elephant in your mind moments ago. Undoubtedly, Contractor Pete will have a different belief about his professionalism and character.  His belief is also a construction and is not a fact in reality.

A belief is something you hold in your mind, a kind of map or model of external reality” (p.6, Liminal Thinking)

The result is a situation in which I will battle for my version of reality and Contractor Pete will battle for his – because it is so obvious to both of us who is right.  Unfortunately, the argument over whose belief is right distracts from the learning needed to do something better.  We get stuck battling over whose obvious is more obvious and forget that the original goal is to do a better job of the kitchen installation.  

Liminial Thinking Principle 1:  “Beliefs are models.  Beliefs seem like perfect representations of the world, but, in fact, they are imperfect models for navigating a complex,  multidimensional, unknowable reality.”

You Couldn’t Think Your Way Out of A Wet Paper Bag!

Over the past couple of years, and as I get a little older, I find myself involved in meaningful, inspiring conversations with friends and colleagues about how we should organize our communities, organizations, institutions and systems.  Conversations about systemic change to make things better for everyone.  Like an education system that teaches real students rather than the mythical average child.  Or, on a grander scale, a global economic system accessible to everyone (The Size of the Pie).

But how do we proceed?  I know it starts with refusing to accept “That’s just the way it is” as our default. 

Then what?  I believe the answer lies in how we think. 

We need to think differently. Not better. Nor faster. Nor smarter. Most of the time we think without really thinking about it.  But have you ever stopped to think about how you justify to yourself that having a second dough-nut is a good idea? Have you ever stopped to unpack how that process happens in your head?  I never have because I’m already too busy thinking about how good the second dough-nut tastes.  

Then I began reading Dave Gray’s book entitled Liminial Thinking. He deftly unpacks the complexity of how our thoughts are created and ultimately lead to our actions.  My plan is to take you through my experience of the book as I read it, think about it and apply it to my practice.  However, Gray makes these concepts so accessible that I would recommend you give yourself the treat of experiencing it for yourself. 

Ultimately, my goal is to think differently so I can do things better.