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Why We Fail To Adapt

2015 October 25

Hipsters go to TED for inspiration about what the future will bring, but the world’s greatest physical scientists go to Solvay.  It was there in 1927, at the fifth Solvay Conference that Albert Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe,” to which Niels Bohr retorted, “Einstein, stop telling God what to do.”

Bohr’s quip was much more than a clever line, but a tipping point in the world of physics toward a quantum world of probabilities rather than the deterministic universe that Einstein preferred.  Even Einstein, when faced with a flaw in his core beliefs, was unable to adapt and it doomed the latter part of his career.

It makes you wonder what chance the rest of us have.  We all like to think of ourselves as innovative and agile, but when our core beliefs are called into question, the cards are stacked against us.  Our brain chemistry, social networks and even our basic instinct for survival will resist the change.  To master the art of the shift, we first need to master ourselves.

The Stubbornness Of Old Ideas

We tend to think that we experience the world as it is.  We see and hear things, store them away as knowledge and then take new facts into account.  Yet that’s not what we really do.  In fact, we filter out most of what we experience, so that we can focus on particular points of interest.  In effect, we forget most things so we can focus on what we feel is most important.

What’s more, the effect is cumulative.  What we think of as knowledge is really connections in our brains called synapses which develop over time.  These pathways strengthen as we use them and degrade when we do not.  Or, as scientists who study these things like to put it, the neurons that fire together, wire together.

So as we go through life and learn the ways of the world, we become less able to imagine other possibilities.  Our mental models become instinctive and standard practices become “the right way to do things.”  This effect becomes even stronger and more pervasive if we see our mental models as being responsible for our success, as Einstein did.

Einstein lived almost a full three decades after his great debate with Bohr and, in that time, quantum mechanics became the dominant physical theory.  Yet although it was one of his early papers that launched this revolution, he was never able to accept it and became in later life, as Oppenheimer put it, “a landmark, but not a beacon.

The Network Effect

While our previous experiences tend to blind us to new developments, those around us will help reinforce common beliefs.  In fact, a series of famous experiments done at Swarthmore College in the 1950’s showed that we will conform to the opinions of those around us even if they are obviously wrong.

Yet few of the issues we face are that clear cut.  We tend to cling to our beliefs because they have worked for us.  Einstein’s belief in a deterministic universe led to his great discoveries and worldwide acclaim.  How could he abandon the very thing that led him to such enormous success?

As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions new paradigms don’t emerge whole, but first arrive as a series of quirky anomalies that are easy to dismiss as “special cases” that we can work around.  This usually works pretty well for a while and things go on much as before.

So even if we notice that something is awry, that things aren’t quite what we thought they were, we will most likely forget about it and get back to business.  After all, not only do we believe in our present working model, so do those around us.  The world is a messy place and every rule has exceptions.  Life goes on.

The Efficiency Paradox

Another barrier to adaptation is that change incurs real costs.  How much time, effort and resources do we want to expend on a hunch? Especially when our own instincts and those around us tell us that our present course is the right one?

As General Stanley McChrystal explained in Team of Teams, building the kind of agility and interoperability it takes to respond to disruptive change almost always results in diminished efficiency, at least in the short term.  That’s the efficiency paradox.  To effectively deal with disruption, we need to sacrifice our effectiveness in normal, stable environments.

Most of this understand this principle intuitively, but in practice our instinct for loss aversion takes over.  Evolution engineered us to survive, not to seek out the great yonder.  So we are wired to avoid incurring losses, even if we have an equal or better chance of making gains.

In McChrystal’s case, he had to take people out of their units so that they could contribute to better coordination.  For example, he embedded intelligence officers in commando units and vice versa.  He also took some of his best operators out of the field altogether and made them liaison officers, usually a role reserved for those past their prime.

These were not easy changes to make and they most likely diminished the effectiveness of individual units.  However, as a collective, his forces increased their efficiency by a factor of seventeen, measured by the amount of raids they were able to execute.

Managing For Disruption

The story of McChrystal is an inspiring one, all the more so when you realize that he had no guarantee of success.  That he was able to manage it successfully is a tribute to his skills as a leader.  Most change efforts do not go nearly as well.

The problem is that disruption always seems strange to us, because it always starts with them. It is those on who operate outside of our social networks and everyday experience that have no loyalty to the existing model or the status quo.  They are unencumbered by synapses that fire in unison with the present paradigm and unconnected to those who benefit from it.

That’s why we need to manage not for stability, but for disruption.  We need to stretch ourselves into the realm of the uncomfortable and unlikely, to break bread with those whose neurons fire along different pathways and who travel in circles detached from our everyday experience. We cannot live our lives surrounded by the familiar and expect to embrace the new and different.

So in order to adapt we must, as Whitney Johnson puts it, disrupt ourselves.  To seek out people, places and experiences that challenge our core beliefs.  The status quo has many champions—our brain chemistry, our social networks and our sense of security.  We can only embrace the future if we are willing to make the effort to break free of the past.

– Greg

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Judith Brown Meyers permalink
    October 25, 2015

    Outstanding piece! Am forwarding it to many friends.

  2. October 25, 2015

    Thanks Judith. I appreciate it.

    – Greg

  3. October 25, 2015

    Thank you Greg, yet another point that flexibility of mind is a valuable and scarce commodity.

  4. October 25, 2015

    Greg this is a terrific piece. As I read it there were two points you made that I reacted to. One is the stubbornness of old ideas. A mentor or mine many years ago said, ‘Learning is the process of reflecting on experiences that produces insights useful in solving future problems.’

    Learning opens our minds to accept new information. When we incorporate new information through reflection we expand our compendium of knowledge. Our consciousness changes with new knowledge/experience and we apply it to create new experiences, change behavior, or make decisions. This is a problem-centric solution. It’s the bedrock of communications and marketing.

    Which speaks to your close, seek that which challenges our thinking. To do that we have to be aware enough to know what problems we want to solve and seek solutions. The greatest effect in our learning is in a social situation. Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development speaks to that well and to your break bread with those who do not share our same old same old thinking.

    The other point is the idea of filters and how when they are in place we are not actively learning or growing. I wrote about that as it relates to my grief and suffering a loss lowered my filters and opened my world.

    Thank you,

  5. October 25, 2015

    Great points Mark! Thanks.

    – Greg

  6. October 25, 2015

    Interesting point. Can you truly have flexibility of mind without a diversity of experiences?

    – Greg

  7. October 26, 2015

    A thoughtful piece. When we teach/coach leaders on the importance of agility and adaptiveness in these uncertain times and peddle out theories of paradigm shifts and mental models, it’s important, as you comment, to register the strong neural forces at play and the significance of determination and strong will power to break the status quo.

    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?

    The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (T. S. Eliot)

  8. October 26, 2015

    Thanks Richard. One of the problems I see is that people often seem to assume that they can be more agile through a mere force of will. You can’t just wake up one day and decide to see things differently. You have to diversify your experiences.

    – Greg

  9. October 29, 2015

    Hmmm! The past?

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