Change is Not a Transition from One State to Another (Stephen Billing)

Change is not a transition from the current state to some desired future state. Any state you might choose is arbitrary. Change is an ongoing ceaseless process that never stops at some equilibrium state.

In the western world we have developed a language and way of thinking that gives precedence to substance and static things. This tradition of thinking has predisposed us to thinking of organisations as primarily stable, permanent and unchanging.

We see organisations as being primarily in equilibrium and change as being the slightly irksome transitory phase when the organisation moves from one state of equilibrium to another, a state that requires ‘managing.’

Kurt Lewin’s classic ‘unfreeze, change, refreeze’ dictum expresses the essence of this way of thinking. To implement organisational change, you unfreeze what you currently have by shaking it up, you apply change processes and then you embed the changes into the new equilibrium. Lewin’s ideas in the 1950s were very influential for decades and have become part of received wisdom, so it still affects the way many people today view organisational change today.

Robert Chia in his article "A ‘Rhizomic’ Model of Organizational Change and Transformation: Perspective from a Metaphysics of Change," published in the British Journal of Management in 1999 (unfortunately subscription only) traces this way of thinking back to Parmenides, through Aristotle and credits this way of thinking for the scientific and technological achievements of western society since Ancient Greece. So we must acknowledge the great benefit this way of thinking has had in our society.

Nevertheless, the view that organisations seek equilibrium is a view, it is not necessarily ‘the truth.’

One alternative view is based on the thinking of Heraclitus, who was the mentor of Parmenides. In this view, change is seen as enduring, and the current and desired states we perceive are seen as snapshots we create in an attempt to simplify and make sense of the world.

So rather than an equilibrium state being normal and a transition to that state as a temporary situation needing to be managed in the form of change management, we can see the state of organisation as being an artificial simplification, and a temporary snapshot.

The state of organisation is then the exception. Organisation is a temporary moment in a process of continuous ongoing changing. Change is not then a temporary transition between different states of organisation.

Organisations are constantly changing through incessant processes of interaction between human beings, and are not moving towards a state of equilibrium. In other words, the change you are trying to implement now is not an end in itself, it is part of a neverending process of changing that has no beginning and no end. Whatever goal you choose and whatever you see as the starting point are arbitrarily chosen points in a neverending flow of interactions and change in your organisation.

Different perspective, eh?