#402  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 5          May 1999

Think Big If You Want To Ride The Wave of Change
by Rick Kirschner, N.D.

Dr. Kirschner speaks on the topics of change, communication, service and innovation. He is coauthor of Dealing With People You Can't Stand (McGraw-Hill, New York, 1994), the CDRom and audio/video, How To Deal With Difficult People, and the 7-volume video series Telecare: Exceptional Service on the Phone. He can be reached through (800) 556-9996 x 12, www.talknatural.com or dr.rick@talknatural.com.

The human experience has been both frightening and glorious. Our ancestors scratched, clawed and shoved their way forward against waves of war, oppression, hunger, disease and despair. They built monuments, created myths and passed along memories that have lasted through the ages that tell the tale of the tug of war between shared interests of the many and special interests of the few. This struggle has shaped and defined us, as we learned to live in island realities, behind boundaries of increasingly complex design.

Yet something new is occurring.  As we individually and collectively try to discern our true place in the scheme of things, we find ourselves in a universe that is expanding, where galaxies collide, stars and planets are being born and everything around us is in motion. Outmoded ideas and labels are losing their grip on our collective psyche. People now routinely communicate and co-create directly with one another in an ever more boundary-less world. It is increasingly clear that humanity is getting ready to boldly go where it has never gone before.

The Paradigm Shifts

The term "paradigm" refers to sets of rules based on sets of assumptions about how things work. It is useful to recognize that when the paradigm shifts, reality doesn't change. As we refine what we know about how nature operates, paradigm shifts are merely upgrades in our perception of reality.

The elites of the western world once believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Certainly there were a few brave souls who saw evidence to the contrary. But they quickly found themselves on the bleeding edge of change, as the authorities of their time stifled dissent. Meanwhile, sailors figured it out. As soon as they realized that the water didn't drop into a void filled with dragons, they wanted to know what was beyond the horizon. Soon, they discovered they could sail in opposite directions and arrive in the same place. Word got around. Today, we all know that the earth is the third planet rotating around a minor star at the edge of a minor galaxy in a universe so populated with galaxies that they outnumber the stars in the night sky. We're not exactly the center of the universe.

Did reality change? Not really. That particular paradigm shift made possible all sorts of innovations, including transportation and telecommunication abilities that the old paradigm kept hidden.  As we refine our perceptions of what is, we expand our horizons.

Tunnel Vision

Chart the trends of history and you see that a limited view encompassed every area of endeavor, from science to education to economics and religion. The old paradigm, based on specialization, division and dissociation was a highly refined set of assumptions in which more and more people learned more and more about less and less until they knew everything about nothing. Such people were called experts, and were given positions of great authority.

Old paradigm politics divided people along party lines that polarized issues and prevented progress. Old paradigm education recognized only one kind of intelligence. Old paradigm healthcare divided the human being into separate systems (digestive, nervous, cardiovascular, etc.).  In business, the old paradigm defined you by your job title. This kind of walls-and-boundaries-thinking produced, among other things, the pyramid chart. 

At each level of this stratified system, gatekeepers held everyone below them at bay. In times of rapid change, the fundamental problem with such old paradigm thinking is that it inhibits momentum, generates inertia, slows communication and interferes with innovation.  It creates tunnel vision. By the time information gets from the people who know what's going on to the people who can do something about it, the information is irrelevant!

As new tools lead to a better understanding of the nature of reality, humanity is witnessing and giving birth to a global paradigm shift. The new paradigm people, now emerging as leaders, are easy to recognize. They break down walls where they find them and build bridges where they're needed. Boundary-less thought and action are their alternatives to the borders and divisions of the past.

Putting A Puzzle Together

The new paradigm shows us that the most economical way to solve a problem is to think big. Consider a jigsaw puzzle. To put the puzzle together successfully, you must remove the lid from the box, turn the box over and empty all the pieces onto a flat surface, then turn all the pieces over so they're facing in the same direction. Once these big picture activities are complete, you start looking for the borders. It makes no sense at all to open the box, remove a piece, and spend the rest of the day pawing around in the box looking for a piece that matches it. Yet this is exactly how many people puzzle their way through their lives, how many cultures view the world, how businesses solve problems, and how communities deal with change. A new paradigm approach is to get all the pieces of a problem on the table, turn them over, then look at the trends, watch for the borders and puzzle your way from the general to the specific.

Big picture thinking allows you to accurately chart the trends of what's coming into view and what's going away. Significant change is often imperceptible to the naked senses of the casual observer. Like watching water boil or a flower open, change is often invisible unless we step far enough back to see the whole of it, and track the trending of it through time. A trend appears as a rising wave of occurrences or agreements, small at first, slowly increasing and then suddenly multiplying logarithmically, until a new choice is adopted, a new decision is made, a new idea is initiated, or one wave meets another. Eventually, the wave finds its level, steadily diminishes and then returns to the quantum soup of possibilities from which it came.

Charting trends is a method for making the invisible visible. Trends have been sweeping through your life as far back as you can remember, and your responses to these trends have had significant side effects. Look through the lens of trends, observe what is increasing and what is decreasing, and you can find points of leverage to influence the way things turn out. You can withdraw resources of time, money and energy from activities that are no longer relevant and invest them proactively and preventatively in the future as it is just appearing on the horizon.

Side Effects

Lastly, big picture thinking helps you to see that change happens as a side effect of the choices people make. Typically, when people pay attention to the consequences of their plans and actions, they focus only on the direct effects. Yet for every action there are numerous side effects that must also be taken into account, and the failure to do so can have unexpected consequences. You know how this works: For want of a blacksmith, a nail is lost. For want of a nail, a shoe is lost. For want of a shoe a horse is lost. For want of a horse, a soldier is lost. For want of a soldier, the battle is lost.

The greatest achievements in human history were side effects of smaller changes. Gutenberg was looking for a way to reuse a piece of type after a page was printed. Yet his movable type gave birth to the Renaissance. King George's taxes and tyranny forced the American founders to revolutionize the paradigm of governing by embracing the idea of unalienable rights and self-government. Progress is often the side effect of people coping with difficult times, following their curiosity, responding to urgency with passion, and sometimes just paying attention while doing one's work. Side effects set in motion waves of change that consistently surpass the imaginings of previous generations. The saying holds true: Feed a person a fish, and they eat a fish. Teach a person to fish, and they fish until they catch one. And if their children like fish, one of the now well-fed children may grow up to discover how fish oil cures disease.

The paradigm shift taking place promises to be a bumpy road for the millions of displaced workers, makers of obsolete products and providers of outdated services. How do we motivate ourselves to go beyond the expected, to improve and innovate, to work cooperatively? To ride the waves and weather the storms, here is a thriving agenda:

1. Expect the Waves of Change. In every moment, change happens within us, around us, and between ourselves and others. And every change produces more change. Instead of a foolish attempt to avoid the inevitable, anticipate it and embrace the opportunity of it.

2. Brace Yourself. Leverage is gained through understanding the principles of change and applying them. Creative living requires us to act on the courage of our convictions, and this is only possible when we have learned strategies for effective interpersonal communication. When people understand the alternatives to stress, how to listen and how to talk, cooperation is the likely result.

3. Focus Forward.  Keep your eyes on the horizon, by regularly asking big-picture questions that create "What If" scenarios. What technological breakthroughs or changes in the economy could make what you do obsolete? How can you serve others better, faster, cheaper, more easily? How might others inhibit your ability to serve by doing so better, faster, etc? What needs aren't being met in your market place? This type of activity generates new ideas while cultivating your sense of ownership over the process of change.

4.  Catch the Wave.  Side effects remain largely invisible unless you chart the trends and make them visible.  Then you can see the waves before they arrive and position yourself to catch them. Just as impulses travel through your nervous system, waves arrive in a sort of punctuated equilibrium, with each moment of excitement followed by a moment of calm. The time to catch the next wave is in that moment of calm before it arrives.

5.  Enjoy the Ride.  Since this is the only moment guaranteed to any of us, make the most of it, and others will join in.  When leaders look scared or send mixed messages, the fear factor ripples down the line! As Albert Schweitzer said, "Example isn't the main thing in influencing people. It is the only thing." Our work can be, ought to be, a place to make a difference, to gain appreciation and to develop ourselves. While vision and mission statements may sound good on paper, the real question must always be "What does it look like when our vision comes to life?" Fulfillment is the inevitable result of matching our words to our deeds and our habits to our values.

1999 Dr. Rick Kirschner.  Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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