On Change

5 minute read

Cross posted from OT Engineering Blog and added here for when someone deletes that blog

Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.

Mary Wollstonecraft

With Halloween approaching, a horror story seems to be in order. It is often said that change is scary, a cliche that like all cliches originates from some kernel of truth but then evolves into either tautology or is applied in situations that are more nuanced than a cliche can capture. Situations of change are often like that. It is one of the great paradoxes, written heavily about by many of our modern and postmodern philosophers from Marx to Nietzsche, Lefebvre to Pearls Before Swine that while we seem to crave stability, we also crave growth and development. Growth and development require change. While these things can seems scary at first glance, human beings often search them out when they aren’t getting enough in their lives. They find new jobs or new relationships or go on Amazon shopping sprees, all of which are often the easy way out for satisfying the need for change and growth. So if not all change is scary, where does the cliche come from? You know what is actually scary, deep down, bone shaking world altering kind of scary? Cancer.

Narrator: Well that took a dark turn.

Editor: Let’s wait and see where he’s going with this.

Why is cancer scary? Leaving aside the very visceral reaction one feels upon hearing about cancer and the assumptions of impending death, when we operate at a more philosophical level, cancer is scary because it represents chaotic change. It is uncontrolled growth, irrational at its core, with cells turning on each other in a race to destroy the organism even though they may not know they are doing this. Irrational, chaotic change is scary. When faced with this kind of change, humans, ill-equipped to deal with it rationally, turn to narratives, story making and rumor. We want change but we want to understand it. We almost always want the change agent to understand why things are the way they are before embarking on a radical new path. We need to assess the reality in which we operate in before changing it.

So how do we (specifically those of us operating in the technological fields) navigate times of change in a way that doesn’t involve narrative tales of impending doom and instead fulfill the very human and sociological need for growth and development? The very first thing, prerequisite before all, is to come to terms with the fact there are no purely technical systems anymore. All systems upon which and within which we operate are sociotechnical in nature, meaning they have the dual components of being sociological and technical. It is critical if we are to achieve any success in our desire for change to understand how systems work, how they are designed and operated by the humans that built them and for what reasons they exist.

Then, assuming we have the necessary understanding of systems, we can walk through the steps for successful change. The first step, as Chesterton so eloquently put 100 years ago, is to understand why things are the way they are. This is rather hard work and almost always skipped when it comes right down to it. It involves understanding and discussion and research and is messy and painful and very much on the “socio” side of the sociotechnical continuum. Often, agents of change come into a situation with their own historical context and they try to make their history the current history. This only leads to resentment and antagonism because in almost all situations, the existing system was built for important and meaningful reasons by people who were just trying to do their best to get along within the system that they operated in. To cast all of that aside with the brush of a hand and say “I know this better way” is to guarantee failure without knowing it.

Then, with a proper historical context, one must assess the reality on the ground. What is this system doing right now? What are its goals and incentives? Where are its constraints? What are its areas of leverage? What are its feedback cycles? Again, this is all quite hard. It involves many of the same steps as the discovery of historical context while closely watching the system in operation, tracking its changes and its outcomes.

Next, look to the networks, the flows of communication and how the system gets work done. Think through how changes will fit within the organizational structure. Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress and not easily subverted. Again, this third step is sociological in nature, not technical. So many agents of change believe mere technical solutions will solve everything when in fact the technical parts are typically quite straightforward and provide no benefit without the accompanying sociological work which is much different and often harder. Without looking at the networks of communication flow and organizational design, the best case is that the change takes much much longer as it works through the gates and friction built into the system. At worst, the change becomes something else as the organizational design necessarily dictates the outcome, not the architecture we design (did I mention Conway’s Law is a harsh mistress?)

Finally, after all that work is done, the change can be introduced in the form of small, perhaps tiny, experiments meant to lightly pull the levers within the system and analyze the results. In systems with high leverage, large changes will almost always result in the wrong behavior as feedback cycles you aren’t aware of take over and spiral out of control. In our business mythology, we have giants who tell stories of radical overhaul that resulted in incredible outcomes. Leaving aside the fact that history is written by the winners, it is more likely that the radical overhaul was either excruciatingly painful for a great many people or was actually implemented in a decidedly non-radical way. By coming up with and executing small, continual experiments that are analyzed to make sure their outcomes drive towards the system we want, we can, over time, improve things with minimal pain as we make feedback cycles shorter and areas of leverage less dependent on others.


Perhaps a better cliche is that successful change is hard and requires a deep understanding of systems thinking, sociological interactions and communication flow. Change is possible and almost always good. But it is a continuum and contextually specific and requires a deft hand to navigate successfully. Each situation is different and there are no easy solutions. To build something different than what we currently have, rather hard work is required. But if we put in the work, successful change is possible and deeply rewarding. It just always takes longer than anyone realizes.

Note: This essay is really just a summation of Esther Derby’s excellent book 7 Rules For Positive, Productive Change. I’ve said nothing new here and if you are interested in change, you can do worse than starting with Derby’s work.