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The dance of change

By Jay Somasundaram
Created 26/04/2009 - 15:04

The dance of change
by Jay Somasundaram [0]

Many of the postings on this site discuss problems and solutions. Much of these discussions are about radical change. This thread seeks to contextualise the broader discussions by outlining a model of five types of problem solving: doing nothing; bombing the bejesus out of it; throwing money at it; continuous improvement; and disruptive innovation.

Do nothing

Actually, doing nothing is likely to get one fired, so one has to learn the art of looking extremely busy. There is a whole plethora of busy-work activities. Jet-setting meetings, consultation, senate inquiries, writing policies and laws are all excellent tactics, as all these are equally precursors to achieving something. An excellent trick is to simply walk fast. People who saunter, however effective they are, will never get to the top.

Another great do-nothing solution is pilot projects. They are, in fact an excellent way of killing a proposal that is overwhelmingly sound. Start a pilot and run it for a couple of years. Even if it is successful, simply continue the pilot and delay widespread implementation of the ideas (something this radical requires further study, some problems need ironing out). The initial enthusiasts will get disgruntled and leave, the organisation’s bad practices will gradually seep into the pilot, and there may not even be a need to kill it formally.

The federal government’s approach to carbon trading is, according to some, another great ploy. Develop a bill that is killed by the opposition. Do nothing, with the added bonus of hand-wringing and finger-pointing.

Doing nothing can sometimes be the right thing to do – to sit quietly till the moment when action may be required.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you…

It, however, goes against our very culture, where hyperactivity is a virtue.

Bomb the bejesus out of it

Bush's response to terrorism. It appeals to the light of brain and heavy of brawn. A “War on ....” rhetoric typically indicates a bomb the bejesus approach – no real plan. There is an ancient saying: kill the cobra and its spouse will hunt you.

On the other hand, most of us do wage all out war if we find mice in the house, usually [1] successfully.

Throw money at it

Loved by all. It means more money for those running the system, and generally provides relief to customers. No one has to think or work very hard. Traffic congestion – build another bridge. Patient waiting lists – build more hospitals. Unfortunately, it has two drawbacks – firstly, finding the money – it has to come from somewhere. Secondly, it simply feeds the beast, which becomes even hungrier. Both our and Obama's approach to the financial crisis is to throw money at it.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement makes small incremental changes to a system. Popularised by Deming, its current versions include sophisticated statistical techniques such as six sigma. It works; we know how to do it. It is, however, hard work and rather boring.

If we lose the plot though, continuous improvement can end up with a perfect concrete life jacket. Do we really want to improve the efficiency with which Centrelink processes welfare applications?

Some will argue that there are limits to this improvement, when organisations reach 100% efficiency. There are, on the other hand, suggestions that even in highly efficient organisations such as Toyota, 85% of what they do may not be adding value – that there is still some way to go.

Disruptive innovation

Disruptive innovation [2] is the sexy, exciting member of the family. It’s when a radical new method of doing things overturns existing ways. Light bulbs replace candles or CDs replace printed encyclopaedias.

A critical approach initially provides a radical, disruptive alternative – an antithesis. However, once one moves to a Hegelian dialectic, one is simply seeking minor improvements, a fine tuning.

Disruptive innovation requires two things. Firstly, it needs a paradigm shift in the inventor's mental models. Secondly, once the idea is hatched, it needs an environment where it can succeed. The problem with disruptive innovation is that it causes a power shift. Those in power in the old system get displaced. It also requires paradigm shifts by whole populations, which is quite difficult to achieve. Existing large organisations with the old technology find it impossible to implement disruptive technology.

This is where free markets work. Small innovative firms can grab the market and grow. When the state provides a service, disruptive innovation simply cannot take place. Society needs free markets. A purely socialist economy can only progress incrementally.

That is not to say that our markets are perfect for innovation. Big firms do try to squash innovators. Some argue that patent law, which is meant to promote innovation, is more often used by big firms to kill it. While big firms complain about government regulation and red tape, they secretly realise that it prevents competitors entering the market. It is prohibitively expensive for any but the big firms to introduce new drugs.

Teach for Australia

Teach for Australia [3] is an attempt at disruptive innovation. It attempts to sow the education industry with a few energetic “high-flying” graduates and hope they will create disruptive innovations. What Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard fails to realise, however, is that even now, many who enter the profession enter it with a fierce desire to contribute, to innovate, to make a difference. They burn out. They succumb to learned helplessness [4]. How will these graduates be any different?


Human being seem to need a sense of progress. We are nevertheless unsure of exactly what we are making progress towards. We are also often unsure of whether we are making progress or whether we are simply going around in circles. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

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