Monday, 10 May 2010

Change and Transformation

It being Easter recently, I thought it might be a good idea to ponder on the topic of change and transformation. So allow me to share with you a bit about ‘U’ Theory, that I learned recently and somewhat sketchily. It is a theory for social transformation formulated by Harvard professor Peter Senge, on what it takes for a person, a corporation or a society to change. If my somewhat limited understanding has it right, for someone or a company to transform, it is not enough to enact changes on the behavioural level. Forcing changes on the mindset level on the other hand, is too difficult and, when the change required calls for greater innovation and creativity, a diverse pool of mentalities is actually desirable in generating a rich source of different ideas.

Instead, real change must take place at the system or structural level. When a particular system is properly imposed, the behaviour will correct itself to adjust to the system regardless of the mental attitude behind it. For example, we Indonesians are very bad at queuing up, throwing our rubbish properly and generally displaying courteous behaviour in public spaces especially the road. However, once we set foot in Singapore, for example, what seems so difficult to do at home, suddenly becomes second nature. We’re quite happy to exhibit sociable behaviour such as not trying to elbow our way to the front of the line or throwing tissues out of the car window.

We haven’t changed, but the system has. As long as the system in this country is a mess and there are loopholes undermining it, then we too will tolerate, expect and perform messiness. The greater the mess, the more perfect our ability to subvert the system and react to it when the whole thing breaks down.

Conversely, those used to a much more structured system will find it difficult, say, to navigate the messy traffic of Jakarta and the daredevil driving on Java’s toll roads whose system is, grab every inch of space you can get before anyone else does. When you’re used to playing by the books, it can be a real challenge when you’ve lost the books or when there’s no book to begin with.

To create an orderly society therefore, we just need to impose an orderly system, initially by force, if necessary. Just like in Singapore. If you litter, not wear a safety helmet or strap on your seat belt, you pay a fine. If you break the law, you go to jail. Keep the system airtight then you get the desired results: a disciplined and law abiding citizens. Societies are not born civil. They need to be civilised by a system that enforces and promotes civil behaviour.

For an institution to change, whether in order to grow, to be more productive or to be creative, the challenge is to let go of an existing system, which is not easy especially when one is already comfortable within that system. In order for transformation to take place, the theory calls for a greater self-reflection and the recognition that a change is required. For a company to perform better for instance, it requires a gradual shift in those involved from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’ and eventually, hopefully, to ‘conscious competence’.

The thing is, if you were unconsciously incompetent, presumably you wouldn’t even know you’re incompetent to begin with and would not have the need or motivation to change. While any imposition from outside will no doubt be met with resistance or denial.

On the other hand, when you don’t have any clear idea of what you’re doing and why, then it’s difficult to know whether you’re making any progress or going in the right direction at all. We’re also in danger of repeating the same mistakes and finding ourselves difficult to fix things once and for all. In this case, not only are we in danger of wasting our time but we’re also wasting our creative powers and failing to develop anything of real and lasting value.

So how to create lasting transformation then? Very often it takes drastic events to generate real changes, such as stiff competition and financial crisis for a company or, on a personal level, a life-changing experience that forces one to re-think the way we’ve conducted our lives. These challenges help us raise our consciousness from an ‘unconscious’ state to a fully conscious one that can spur us to enact changes at the structural level.

Changing requires a lot of thought, a lot of learning, a lot of letting go of the past and remodelling of the present. It involves a lot of pain.

And yet it is a necessary pain that we have to undergo if we want to grow and develop as human beings, as institutions, as societies. After all, what is the history of humankind if not the history of the evolution of our consciousness?

(Desi Anwar: first published in The Jakarta Globe)

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