The Change Agent in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Change Agent in the Gray Flannel Suit

Admit it: If you’re reading this column, at some point you probably wanted to save the world. And maybe still do. But the fact that innumerable people before you have had the same desire, yet the world remains stubbornly unappreciative, gives some pause.

Perhaps the way lies through ideologies? After all, they provide the teleologies, methods, vision, and emotional motivation and support for world-saving. But these are essentially intellectual bumper stickers. There’s a certain lurking suspicion that the real world may be a little more complicated than that.

Ideologies are maladaptive in the real world for some fairly obvious reasons. First, they are necessarily radical simplifications of reality; indeed, this is part of their appeal. Collapsing complexity into ideology may be mentally and emotionally satisfying, but if the essence of the problems at issue derives in large part from the complexity of the systems involved, ideology is almost definitionally dysfunctional. Additionally, the constituents of any ideology lie in the past, even if they purport to address the future (perhaps as prediction, as in Marxism). They thus become problematic in a period of rapid and discontinuous change. More subtly, ideologies operate by elevating the power of a particular idea over the real, messy, and contingent world. They thus cut off dialog and openness to new ideas, and in practice can be profoundly undemocratic and irrational.

Assuming that making the world a better place remains a valid goal, what is to be done? Perhaps the most important first step is to recognize and accept the complexity of the cultural, technological, economic, and natural systems within which we now find ourselves, rejecting a wistful but misplaced faith in ideological bumper stickers. One can then ask the critical question: how does change occur in complex systems, and how do I guide such change?

This raises profound issues, among them the question of whether we have free will in today’s complex, technologically coupled world. But this question, which has bedeviled theologians and philosophers for millennia, is not a fruitful goal for a short column. We can, however, ask more practical questions, such as: do complex systems, such as firms, governments, and technological cycles, have leverage points where introducing change is more probable?

The short answer is yes, but you must fully understand their dynamics to take advantage of them. For example, if you are an internal stakeholder (an employee, say), fundamentally changing an institution when it is in a successful phase is quite difficult. But when that same institution is under significant pressure — a university slipping down the league tables, or a firm in deep economic trouble, for example — you have a much better chance of success. Even then, the changes must align with both the institution’s implicit and explicit culture and goals. Institutions, like people, can be quite good at saying one thing and doing another. Understanding their real (usually implicit) culture enhances success. Enron, for example, had an outstanding public statement of corporate ethics, but its internal culture was clearly not aligned with this statement. External stakeholders, however, may find leverage points in other ways (boycotting or campaigning against a consumer goods firm, for example). You need to understand the systems within which you are operating, and your position in relation to other elements of it, to be effective.

More broadly, the discomfort that many academicians feel in the presence of a highly complex and contingent world — that is, one not captured neatly within the boundaries of whatever discipline they represent — leads to a failure to educate students about the most salient characteristic of the future they may deal with, and to be responsible for its complexity. That our understanding of this complexity is in its infancy is no excuse for pretending it is not there, a posture that is becoming increasingly irresponsible, almost unethical.

Rather, our ignorance should be a goad for greater effort and the development of appropriate educational materials and approaches. No student should be allowed to graduate without at least one course in complex systems, for only from that comes the understanding and sophistication that can generate rational, responsible, and ethical change.

And, perhaps, save the world.

Allenby is Environment, Health and Safety VP for AT&T, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia’s Engineering School and Princeton Theological Seminary, and Batten Fellow at the University of Virginia’s Darden Business School. The views expressed herein are those of the author, and not any institution with which he is associated.