CHANGE CHANgE CHa Ng E
“You never step into the same river twice.”
Famous philosopher Heraclitus has left us this remarkable fragment which has captured our imagination for over 2500 years. Just imagine your bare feet touching those cold flowing refreshing waters which never remain the same. Feel its rhythm. See those huge boulders and giant rocks the river slowly transforms into sediment as it moves downstream. Upon returning to the very same spot, one realizes, the river is not as it was. Perhaps, we will be lucky enough to realize, we too are not as we were. But it seems we are rarely like flowing rivers. As a matter of fact we rarely even think of our rivers. Our troubled, hardly flowing and lifeless Bogotá river is for us the prime example of our unchanging blindness. Not feeling the river’s rhythms, we are surprised ––as we have been in the recent terrible and costly floodings—– when the river takes back the channels and beds we have, in many instances, unwisely usurped. Could it be that we are more like the boulders and rocks that stubbornly resist personal transformation with their illusory sense of security and obvious grandeur? It seems so.
There exist many famous renown rocks, and business is not the exception. Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, was considered to be the leading expert in the market dynamics of the day. He was named to this powerful position by highly respected and quite loved President Reagan whose economic views have been summarized in his famous words from his First Inaugural Address in 1981: “Government is not the solution, government is the problem.” Famous for his —-NOW seen to be—- extreme views of free market economics, and dead set against major forms of regulation of complex derivatives in market transactions, Greenspan even appeared in the cover of Time Magazine. The cover title said it all, Greenspan and his advisors were held to be “the committee to save the world.” Oedipus too was called on to save Thebes as the riddle-solver he was. But the river flows, and little was Greenspan prepared for its rhythms. Little wonder that once the world financial crisis became OUR river (of course, with exceptions such as that of Canada and the prudential practical wisdom of its banks), Greenspan became paralyzed by his own mind. And soon thereafter we had the opportunity to see a very different Greenspan; the powerful river´s waters had reduced the powerless boulder. Before a Congressional Committee, we witnessed a truly courageous public admission. Like a modern economic Oedipus, Greenspan was asked to respond to Representative Waxman’s “simple” question; “Were you wrong?” By answering, Greenspan allowed us to see for ourselves the fundamental basis of change: “I have found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact.” Greenspan had understood: he had come to understand that he did not know, even though he once thought he did. Another famous philosopher once said something similar. And, in all honesty, how many of us can bear the simplicity of that question for ourselves?
However, we need ask; how could someone so intelligent, so wise and recognized by so many to be so; how could someone like that be simultaneously so resistant to changing his own views on things? Had he not read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex during his MBA training? Wouldn’t that have made a BIG difference? Perhaps, one could put it this way: there seems to be a kind of inverse relation between changes for personal success and success at personal changes. Following Boyle´s famous law of gases there can develop a powerfully blinding inverse relation between these. Why so? Because, it seems, as successful recognition is gained, the very erotic and self-questioning drive that pushed one originally TO succeed, slowly but surely in many of us looses its rhythmic power. Boyle’s law explains the inverse relationship between the volume and pressure of a gas. Think of a pressure cooker. In our case we could say: the greater the volume of the ego, the less the pressure to change. Think of all the famous bubble bursts of the economy. Ironically, it appears, the more intelligent we are, the less intelligent we are for change. Mintzberg’s call not to pay bonuses seems refreshing. We wish to remain boulders, but the river thinks otherwise. And it will let us know.
But, then, how could one become more prepared for the rhythms of change? For starters, by looking outside oneself. If only Greenspan had looked outside himself and his paradigm. If only he had had courageous friends, and not simply yes-sayers. Heraclitus learned these rhythms from the river, I learned about them partly from experiencing the seasons in my other home country, Canada. Evidently, Vivaldi too learned about them from The Four Seasons, as we all know. Wouldn’t Colombian managers gain much by experiencing the rhythmic presence of the seasons for at least a whole year? Or else, where have YOU learned about the rhythms of change from? And looking beyond, do you —–or your children—- know the beautiful Greek mythological story of the emergence of the seasons, a story whose main characters are Zeus, Demeter, Persephone and Hades? Did Greenspan?
What did I come slowly to learn? One must be prepared for the ever-changing cycles of nature. What “is” quickly turns into a “was”; what “is” quickly reminds one of what “will be”. Summer was just here, and now it has turned into autumn; autumn partly means preparing for the exigencies of winter. And the more you live this, the more you see the “was”, the “is”, and the “will be”; and, more importantly, the more you see the bridges that connect the beauty of their interconnected temporal presence. Or as Confucius put it, always reminding ourselves of China´s leading economic role in today’s world: “Study the past if you would define the future.” Living the seasons may help prepare you for something like this. Let us try.
Winter hits one, specially us Colombians, like the biggest of boulders. Little are we prepared for its freezing reflective silence, the dark solitude of its short days, and the dangerous reality of its unique enchanting beauty. Who could live a life without at last once experiencing what it means to live a White Christmas? But finally the bridge to spring opens for us. We breathe the joyful renewal of flooded parks, the colorful reemergence of unimagined flowers and the welcome freshness for one who knows she has patiently awaited a new beginning. Who could live a life without at last once experiencing how odd the biggest of trees look like, bearing the smallest of leaves imaginable? Summer soon appears in the horizon of time. The sun reigns gathering under it the seemingly never-ending brightness of the longest of days, the levity of a spirit that only knows of the outdoors and the active happiness of gathering in festivals with others. Who could live a life without at last once experiencing a day that seems to never end? But the rhythm of the season continues and suddenly, as if awoken from a dream, autumn falls before our eyes. Words cannot describe. In dying, leaves beautify the world with all the colors of the visible spectrum. There appears before one the awe-inspiring transformation of the world into what appears like a touchable rainbow of dying greens, dazzling oranges, erotic reds, withering yellows and lifeless browns. Magic pervades all. Who could live a life without such a life-transforming experience? But this timeless beauty is but a fleeting presence that reminds one of the preparation that precedes the inevitable slow down of the world. And soon the first snowflakes fall upon our bare skin.
Now, evidently, living the seasons does not guarantee that the law of inverse relationship we mentioned will cease to be a troubling reality. We might continue being unable to deal with the inverse relationship between the presence of success and the corresponding slow down of the desire for successful change in ourselves once we have succeeded. For what intrinsic motivation could there be in us to change if we have reached, what in our minds, is the TOP? Where could one go from there? Or, will we do anything to get there? But perhaps by reminding ourselves of the changing majesty of the seasons, we will be able to understand the inevitable cycles of change that give a sense and a certain direction to the beauty of our lives beyond mere, specially economic, success. For surely Greenspan could not foresee any winters, even in the autumn of the years preceding the crisis. He, like Oedipus, could not listen to the Tiresias of his time. For him and his followers, there could NOT be a winter, a really monstrous one. For him, Heraclitus’s river not only did not flow, one could even go so far as to say, he actually might have thought he had frozen it with his step. Remember King Midas? But there was a winter, and of the worst kinds; namely, the one for which one is totally unprepared. And there is a river, and it will flow; it sometimes even overflows. But, the river flows, not so much out there; it can be made to flow within you. It changes throughout the seasons of your life. Become prepared for it.
Fn. 1. A longer version of this article would include a reflection of Professor Mintzberg’s article entitled appropriately: “The Rhythm of Change”. There he wisely distinguishes and analyses the different forms of Dramatic, Systematic and Organic change. Perhaps, later on we will try to portray HIS ideas in terms of what we can learn from the seasons. Mintzberg’s on line article from the WSJ article regarding bonuses “No More Executive Bonuses!” is of great relevance here as well, specially his ideas of bonuses as a screening tool: “I believe that if you do pay bonuses, you get the wrong person in that chair. At the worst, you get a self-centered narcissist. ….. executive bonuses provide the perfect tool to screen candidates for the CEO job. Anyone who insists on them should be dismissed out of hand, because he or she has demonstrated an absence of the leadership attitude required for a sustainable enterprise.” Finally, one can look at his “Rebuilding Companies as Communities”, where he famously states in contrast to his idea of “communityship”: “Show me a leader, and I will show you a bunch of followers.” Finally, the longer version includes a brief reflection on the KEY to reverting the law of inverse relation mentioned, namely, education sought for its own sake. Specially, leaning a new language —–which is part of EAFIT´s role in our society—– is such a privileged occasion.
Fn. 2. Some of the questions relating the seasons to actual business concerns, could be:
What SEASON is your company in? Internally? Externally?
How do you ADJUST to the different economic seasons? How to BRIDGE them?
Which companies RESPECT the seasons? Is Natura an EXAMPLE? Which balance?
WHO is your winter? What is your greatest FEAR for change?
How do true leaders ACT under change? How does a COMMUNITY of managers/workers?
How do you LEARN to deal with change? Which companies have actually DIED? Kodak?
What COMPROMISES must one make for cultural conflict resolution in MERGES?
What is the BEAUTY of marketing change? Apple Inc.?
BUT MOST IMPORTANT: How have YOU changed?
Fn. 3. In order to emphasize the fact that the market leading companies do understand this dynamic, one need only read the HBR article, “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity“ by Ed Catmull. There Pixar´s three basic operating principles are presented. These are: “1. Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone, 2. It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas, 3. We must stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.” We have, to the best of our ability, followed these very principles in writing this piece.
Fn. 4. For a practical way for companies to actually learn better to appreciate the history of the rhythm of changes, one need emphasize the need in Business Schools to have students look further to the past and not simply to the future; to the “was” rather than, as they do, fundamentally to the “will be” of persistent innovation. One ought to remember Confucius’s words. For instance, recalling the history of the first appearance of many of our products. Literature is a treasure trove in this respect. In this regard, one cannot but read with astonishment Faulkner´s The Reivers to see the perception of the introduction of the car in a world that did not know of any such creatures. (Faulkner, p. 29) In photography, the stunning work of Eugène Atget allows us to remember Paris as it was prior to its modernization. This Paris remains only in his photographs. Finally, in what some consider the most important realm ——that of political thought—– it is incumbent upon Business Schools to seek to understand how it is that we in fact became liberal commercial republics as AGAINST other previous models which had been extremely successful. What did we gain by becoming thus? What did we loose? Can this shed light into our contemporary crises? Are we caught in a paradigm just as Greenspan was? Are we prepared to confront that river? The entry point for such a reflection is, in part, the sections on commerce found within Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and their contrast to the prior Aristotelian model of classical republicanism found in his towering Politics.