Managing change

How well does this describe our world today?

These social and economic changes… were uneven and unsettling. They opened up differentials between groups and between different societies. They spawned lust for wealth, envy, and distrust of neighbors. They led to overseas wars, unequal taxation, social turmoil, and the questioning of established authority, royal and religious. The turmoil was worldwide.

This is a description of 1780 by Sir Christopher. Bayly, Cambridge University historian and author of a historical study on globalization, from his book The Birth of the Modern World: 1780-1914.

Imagine being a time traveler and taking a “magical history tour” of the vast array of significant and smaller “hinges of history,” or pivotal changes throughout the world’s major cultures in the past three thousand years. After just a few dozen stops, we’d start to see and hear recurring themes: “All this change is happening too fast”; “Things were much better in the good old days”; “Let’s destroy this new technology that’s spoiling our life; “Nobody wants to work anymore”; “Stop the world, I want to get off,” and many similar refrains.

We could drop into the Forum in ancient Rome and listen to renowned statesman, orator, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero around the time of Julius Caesar. We might feel his pain as he laments, “Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.” Or you could sit in on the County Council meeting of 1904 in London, Ontario as councilors voted to petition the provincial legislature to regulate automobiles in the country. Why? They argued that the “automobile is a curse” due to the frightening of horses.

Let’s pretend we could continue time traveling and now move forward through time, swinging from one hinge of history to another, like a monkey through the jungle treetops. We might be vigorously nodding our head in the 19th century when reformer, politician, and newspaper editor Horace Greely observes, “The illusion that times that were, are better than those that are, has probably pervaded all ages.”

Sudden and rapid change is often disconcerting, even frightening. That’s at the root of today’s populist movements to demonize the new and mythologize the old. Since fear is an extremely powerful motivator, cynical and manipulative politicians weaponize this primal emotion. “Vote for me and I’ll make order of this chaos and take you back to a simpler time when our race/religion/country were in control.”

But there’s no reversing the tidal wave of time. And nostalgia is highly selective. We remember the good times and gloss over all the bad or brutally ugly times. As New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson writes, “In every age ‘the good old days’ were a myth. No one ever thought they were good at the time. For every age has consisted of crises that seemed intolerable to the people who lived through them.”

As I realized in the meeting I wrote about in Shift Happens, there’s no getting through this crazy period to some mythical place of measured change. I told that story to a leadership team last week in a strategic planning retreat. They were discussing the tremendous pressures inflation, The Great Resignation, supply chain disruptions, and shifts in customer demands are exerting on their business. They were frustrated that changes they’d made to their processes and systems now had to be significantly changed again.

Then the tone and determination to lead, rather than follow or wallow, changed. We discussed how today’s solutions are laying the foundation for tomorrow’s problems. That line of thinking opened minds and energized the team to map pathways for building an agile culture capitalizing on, rather than being capsized by constant waves of change.

It’s a never-ending cycle. It’s always been that way and will likely never slow down or stop. As the 1st Century Roman poet, Ovid, observed, “there is nothing constant in the universe; All ebb and flow, and every shape that’s born; Bears in its womb the seeds of change.”

Permanent Impermanence: Unchanging Cycles of Change

The world is unpredictable, turbulent, and chaotic. Nature eschews stability, predictability, and sameness. The seasons of life follow eternally repeating patterns of birth, growth, decline, and death. That makes room for renewal and another cycle to begin. Often the cycles don’t play out in a stable or orderly way. We may see bursts of growth that lead us to feel like abundance and expansion will go on forever. Surely the trees will grow to the sky.

Then when we least expect it, a storm springs up and instantly destroys what had taken years to grow and develop. This often creates different conditions that require something fresh and adaptive to fill the void. A new species might emerge. A new skill set might develop. A radically different approach might appear. A totally new opportunity will open. This is creative destruction. This is evolution. This is life.

This cycle of change may vary in its timing and intensity, but that the cycle is recurring never changes. Heraclitus was a philosopher living in ancient Greece around 500 BC. His greatest legacy is his doctrine that perpetual change is central to the universe. Pre-dating and influencing Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle, Heraclitus made a series of observations on the unchanging nature of change. These centuries-old truths are highly relevant for us today:

 “Nothing endures but change.”

“You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”

“All is flux, nothing stays still.”

“There is nothing permanent except change.”