Doubt, Distrust, and Transformation

When we discuss process control, continuous improvement, and well-formed teams, we hope this helps our workers find value, meaning, and significance in their work. Despite the economic benefits, the decision to transform is an ethical and political one. This explains the paradox that makes this exciting work for a philosopher: autonomy is a loss of control that increases certainty, knowledge grows exponentially the less you try to own it, and teams create more value when you give them the tools, point them at their user, and get out of the way.

Fortunately, when we look to Systems Theory for insights about “transformation” there is a clear definition: Transformation is a drastic shift in capacity to adapt, endure, or recover against new forms of stress, without loss of one’s identity. This perspective has become quite philosophical for me despite my relentless pragmatism on the job. The limit of any organization’s ability to shift lies at the boundary of its identity. As a coach this is the shift from dependence on external formality (waterfall contracts) to internal autonomy (continuous delivery). If a company must lose part of its core identity to build a culture of innovation they will not succeed in making this shift (despite the mantra “We’re all tech companies now”).

Biological evolution is a gradual process of variety through mutation, deadly mistakes, and explosive luck, driven by circumstances and decentralized selection. When we discuss ecological systems, we mean the opposite of evolution and its chaos. Ecology takes the biological status quo of a geographic region, reached through evolution, and projects onto it a human-defined identity. As Felix Guattari explains in The Three Ecologies, ethical and political responsibility are inherent in ecology, because ecology is managed. An “ecology” is a biological system that needs its identity managed by humans. Likewise, an organization is a managed system, even when its management is highly distributed, locally adaptive, and structurally complex. Leadership is the practice of cultivating the ecological resilience of the organization. A resilient organization has leadership capable of redefining its values to ensure its long-run viability.

More importantly, once a system is ecological rather merely evolving, it can never be not-managed. Like the moral responsibility I bear if someone leaves a baby on my doorstep, we either manage or mismanage the ecology of our organization as a leader. While our society is not yet comfortable with the questions implied by this daunting moral responsibility managed through corporate leadership, we cannot avoid the ethical, social, and political burden it represents. Leaders can only manage or mismanage this moral agency. All choices are strategic and every moment is a choice.

My perspective of transformation remains heavily influenced by my first major career role, in a company focused on wellness and physique transformation. There is a simple premise in physique transformation – if you change your nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle choices, you can lose fat, gain muscle, and improve your mood, energy, and sex drive. This is rarely successful without someone helping you question your beliefs, self-discipline, honesty, actions, and values. Those who succeed at maintaining their new physique were able to unchain their core identity from the lifestyle. Those who fail, very often, are facing the terrifying reality that if they drastically change their value system, away from beers, cheese burgers, and binge-watching, they are losing the only identity they have. When a lifestyle is someone’s entire identity, they will do anything to keep it intact.

Lean (process) transformation, Agile transform, and Digital transformation requires the same coaching that a physique transformation requires. Make a critical analysis of the habits of an organization, question the underlying beliefs that perpetuate behaviors, and reveal the assumptions that introduce dysfunction in the accomplishment of their core identity. Transformation relies on a gradual change in interpretation of identity and values by everyone in an organization. Because most of what we believe is distorted, biased, and habitual, transformation begins and drives forward base on a single imperative: questioning our beliefs.

In The Problems of Philosophy, logician and philosopher Bertrand Russell tackles this problem head-on.

A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken. But in spite of the misleadingness of such expectations, they nevertheless exist. The mere fact that something has happened a certain number of times causes animals and men to expect that it will happen again. Thus our instincts certainly cause us to believe the sun will rise to-morrow, but we may be in no better a position than the chicken which unexpectedly has its neck wrung.

Throughout his analysis of what can be known, it becomes clear that knowledge has little to do with truth–it is a problem of trust. What we can trust to be real, trust to be true, trust to keep us safe: the boundary of insanity is defined by collective agreement that a person should no longer trust their ideas, perceptions, beliefs.

When someone trusts their beliefs to the detriment those around him, in a pattern of behavior that is socially unacceptable, they need help. We all trust our beliefs over any evidence to the contrary. An alcoholic suffers not only from chemical processes shared by the obsession over professional athletes sports, Facebook, or the stock ticker, they share the awful reality that the most important and longest-lasting relationship is the one destroying every other value they claim to believe in. When I say that corporations, under poor leadership, present symptoms of process addiction, I mean it precisely in this formal, medical sense. Anyone can pursue pleasure and distraction, but a meaningful life requires us to choose, quite deliberately, what pain is worthwhile based on the values we prioritize.

The philosopher, therapist, and transformation coach all share the same practice. They help people confront the validity of their own beliefs without picking a fight. It is essential to stay the referee because, after all, the fight is between the believer and the beliefs. Resistance and denial are inevitable as soon that fight can be displaced onto someone else, so the coach stays neutral, guiding the process instead.

When we bear the responsibility of leadership, it is critical that we not wait to question the ethical, political, and societal ramifications of our identity and values; we must not put it off until backlash requires interrogation or intervention. We must pursue this wisdom ourselves, daily, in order to live well and help others to also live well. This cannot be left to our home-life or restricted to the terms of our contracts. We must continuously doubt, question actively, and distrust any belief explained by “That’s how it has always been. No one can change it. This is who we are.”

It is only when someone gains a healthy distrust of their own certainty that they can question the origin, validity, and measurement of their values. It is only when someone recognizes the disconnect between who they claim they are, what they claim to value, and their patterns of behavior that run counter to these claims that they can take steps to change. It is only when someone understands the denial and destruction of value required to maintain their beliefs that they then replace bad answers with questions that are continuously better-asked.

This is the real secret of transformation: everything is constantly experimenting, while stagnation arises only through cowardice and denial of moral responsibility. Consistency and change arise from the same set of decisions that will need to be made repeatedly, so the opportunity for transformation is always there, at every level. The entire organization, given the opportunity, will shift the terms of the experiment in favor of more meaningful work. Anchor the vision of the future as though it is central to your past, your identity, the core of what you value, and doubt the validity of any belief that does not serve this future.

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