We live in times of great continuity

15 October 2015

This TWOG was first posted on 21 November, when @mintzberg141 had about 2000 followers. Now that number is approaching 7500, so this will be new to most of you and hopefully worth a revisit for some of the rest.

Actually, it’s “We live in times of great change.” Ever heard that? Or more to the point, have you ever heard a speech by a CEO, management consultant, or management professor that did not begin this way?

When you dressed this morning, as you buttoned buttons, did you say to yourself: “If we are living in times of such great change, how come we are still buttoning buttons?” After all, the modern version of the button has been around for seven centuries. And when you were driving to one of those speeches about living in times of great change, did you notice that the technology under the hood of your car was probably the same as that used in the Model T Ford (an internal combustion four-cycle engine)?

The men who deliver such speeches wear ties. Do you know why? Not to keep their necks warm. It’s because such people have always worn ties. They, like the rest of us, are living in times of great continuity.

And while we’re on the subject of continuity, you should know that these claims about change haven’t changed for decades, although in the 1970s the fashionable word was “turbulence”, which in the 1980s became “hyper-turbulence.” I kid you not.1 Hyper all right, the claims at least.

With the coming of each new decade, the last one was dismissed as stable—the same one that had just been called hysterically-turbulent or whatever. But the prize for hyperbole in this regard has to go to Katz and Kahn, two otherwise intelligent professors, who wrote in 19782 that “Even before turbulence characterized many environmental sectors, organizations frequently faced new problems, for example, those created by war and economic depression.”3

Why all this nonsense? Because some people benefit from it. For the management consultants, it’s good for business: “CHANGE OR ELSE!” meaning that “for a price, we’ll help you (so long as you judge us by what we say, not what we do).” For the management professors, it’s “READ MY BOOK!” (but not my actions). And for the CEOs, it’s “I WILL LEAD YOU THROUGH THESE TURBULENT TIMES!” (as I collect my bonuses, no matter how I mess up). As for the rest of us, it’s a share of the glory: “WE’RE WHERE IT’S AT!” (not like those wimps of some previous generation who had to deal with nothing more than war and depression.)

So what are we to make of all this? Two things. First, that we can be awfully narcissistic, and boring—frozen in the past while making great pronouncements about the present. And second, that while we do notice what is changing—something’s always changing—we don’t notice the great many things that are not.4 But be careful of these, because we can’t manage change without managing continuity. There’s a word for change without continuity: anarchy. Would you like to live in times of great anarchy?

We might get the chance. As a management professor, I can at least end this rant where so many of my colleagues have started theirs. All this hype about change could well become a self-fulfilling prophecy. By believing that we are living in times of great change, we could be driving ourselves crazy, and so end up living in times of great anarchy. To escape this, don’t believe everything you hear. But do tell your friends to READ MY TWOG!

1 See my book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (Free Press, 1994), pages 203-209.

2 D.Katz and R.L. Kahn, The Social Psychology of Organizations (Wiley, 1978), page 132.

3 I began this TWOG by trying to adapt an op-ed piece that I wrote exactly 15 years ago—in December 1999—but never published. It was called “Marching backward into the new millennium.” I can’t resist including here an excerpt from the opening: “It has not been a bad millennium, as millennia go. True, we didn’t come up with anything big, like fire or the wheel. But the printing press wasn’t bad, not to mention computers…. Anyway, we have learned in the last moments of this millennium that the past is irrelevant. History is dead, gone finished…. Now the new millennium is upon us. TIME TO CHANGE. Again…. At the stroke of midnight January 1, 2000.”

4 Exception: there is one thing changing that we prefer not to notice—global warming—so that we won’t have to change our habits. Here the line is “Let the others live in times of great change.”

A quote for this TWOG (cover your eyes at the end):

“Few phenomena are more remarkable, yet few have been less remarked, than the degree in which material civilization—the progress of mankind in all those contrivances which oil the wheels and promote the comfort of daily life—has been concentrated in the last half century. It is not too much to say that in these respects more has been done, richer and more prolific discoveries have been made, grander achievements have been realized, in the course of the 50 years of our own lifetime than in all the previous lifetimes of the race. It is in the three momentous matters of light, locomotion and communication that the progress effected in this generation contrasts surprisingly with the aggregate of the progress effected in all generations put together since the earliest dawn of authentic history.” (This is from the magazine Scientific American—in 1868.)

© 2014, 2015 with minor editing, by Henry Mintzberg