Change Management: The Columbo Approach

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I repeatedly find myself in discussions with individuals who seem most frustrated by their apparent inability to effect change they believe is so dearly needed. Only too well can I relate to their frustration. For years I experienced the same frustration. And, in the midst of this frustration, I continued to berate the ignorance of those who refused to take action to effect change that seemed so necessary and logical. In time I finally came to understand that it was my own ignorance that was the source of the frustration, not the ignorance of those around me. What follows is an attempt to elaborate what I now think I understand, which is really only a new level of ignorance yet unrealized.


Organization as System

Systems are perfectly designed and operated to get the results they get, yet do they get the desired results, or the results they could potentially get? Not likely! Systems operate the way they do, not because of what we understand, but because of what we don't understand. We are, for the most part, consistently victims of our own ignorance. When Buddha was asked what he was, he replied, "I am awake." Most of us are not. We just continue to deceive ourselves into believing we are awake, because to admit we were so ignorant would be more injurious to our own sense of self than we could tolerate. Verily, we have become amazingly adept at self-deception to protect our own sense of self, while we remain asleep and ignorant, while accusing most everything else around us of ignorance and ineptitude. So, how did I arrive at this perspective and what's to do about it?

A system is an entity which maintains its existence through the interaction of its parts. This is Bertalanffy's definition {Davidson 1983}, with which I have become most comfortable, because of its simplicity and its implications. The key element of this definition is "interaction," rather than "parts." A system is more a jumble of relations rather than a pile or a lump. A system is composed of subsystems and at the same time a subsystem of one or more other systems. And, it is the interaction of the parts of a system which is responsible for its emergent characteristics. Emergent meaning that the system as a whole has properties one can not find by studying the parts, like wetness emerging from the interaction of hydrogen and oxygen in a system called water. And, as turns out, there are fundamental principles of systems, which, although they may sometimes be violated in the short term, eventually come to pass. So what does all this have to do with change management?

Organizations are systems, and they are subject to the principles of systems. For the most part, because we don't understand the laws of systems, we continually attempt to violate them and are frustrated when the laws assert themselves and negate our efforts. As a result we curse the system for its ignorance, as we are unable, or unwilling, to curse ourselves as that would be far too injurious to our own sense of self. I have found that with an understanding of systems has come an understanding of the operation of organizations, and they are most amusing, to say the least. So what are the principles of systems, and how do they apply?

Dynamic Equilibrium

Systems are not stable or unstable, but rather exhibit a characteristic of dynamic equilibrium. Systems are goal-seeking, having their own agenda based on the interaction of their parts. An agenda which is seldom, if ever, completely understood. Consider the following diagram for some hypothetical system.

Fig. 1 - Dynamic Equilibrium

The points "A" through "J" represent parts of the system, and the lines between the point represent interactions between the parts. The Points "A", "B", "C", "D", and "H" represent external effects of some nature and are actually also parts of some other system. Now, if you will, imagine that the lines are actually springs, or maybe Slinkys if you wish, with different elasticity coefficients, each stretched to a different extent. The system as depicted exists in a state of dynamic equilibrium, not going anywhere, but maybe vibrating a bit. I know, it's a stretch--pun intended! Now suppose that you decide you want to move "H" up and to the right with some effort from a new part "T".

Fig. 2 - Dynamic Equilibrium

I don't care if you push it or pull it, the relations between "A .. H", "E .. H", "F .. H", and "D .. H" are stretched. And the further you move "H" the greater the tension, or impetus, for "H" to return to where it was. As long as you apply effort from "T" the part "H" will stay where you have moved it to. Yet, not understanding the other interactions at play, once we get "H" to where we think we want it we remove the effort from "T" and are shocked when "H" goes back to where it was before we moved it.

If you really want to move "H," with little effort, first figure out what's keeping it where it is. If you remove the constraints there will be little resistance to moving "H," and once you get it somewhere else it will stay there. Yet, please note that if you remove the constraints on "H" everything that "H" was constraining will move accordingly. This is why you can never do just one thing!

What I find to be a continual source of amusement is that the constraints are quite often intangible mental models which are so deeply ingrained that no one is even aware of them. Consequently, the constraints operate without anyone's awareness, and the organization operates as though fast asleep, and deeply confused by its dreams.

Discounting the Concept of Self

This is the part of the article I started out to write 3 hours ago before the words took over and decided they knew more about what ought to be written than I did. So where was I?

There seems to be nothing more frustrating than people who won't listen to reason. My reason of course. I preach, and plead, and beg, and cajole, and threaten, and reason, and, and, and, and they still won't be reasonable, or so the mental model deludes me, or us, to believe. There are several systems principles at work here which, over time, have shed a great deal of light on the apparent dilemma.

We learn oh so well. Sometimes we learn new things, and sometimes we just reinforce things we already know. We learn from every experience in our lives, whether we are aware that we are learning or not. And what all this learning essentially does is develop our own individual sense of self. A sense of self that we are seldom really aware of, yet which ultimately affects all our actions. Although I may deride myself to no end, I am completely unwilling to allow anyone else to do so, as it threatens my sense of self. And, by our actions, we attempt to do so to each other, often quite unconsciously, all the time, with quite predictable consequences.

Have you ever been out shopping and had someone come up to you and say, "May I help you?" The most predictable response is, "No. I'm just looking." What this well intentioned person has just done is discount your own personal sense of self by implying that you are not competent enough to help yourself, and the reaction is an automatic defense of self. What's more, your automatic defense discounts the other person's sense of self by an implication of, how could they be so presumptuous as to even think that you needed help. So the well intentioned person learns through experience that people don't want to be helped.

This same scenario is carried out anytime one person attempts to convince another person of anything. By my attempt to convince you that my idea is the right one, I am discounting your concept of self by the implication that you are wrong. And then you defend your sense of self, and we establish defensible positions, debate the situation endlessly, and never move from our positions. We expend great amounts of energy going nowhere. Am I not doing it now? Am I not discounting your sense of self by being so presumptuous as to imply that I know something that you don't? Well, I'm not sure I know anything! Amazing isn't it! So, is there an answer? You guessed it, It Depends!

It depends on whether one can integrate self and other to create selfless. It depends on whether one can integrate dependent and independent to create interdependent. It depends on whether one can develop a sense of self and self-awareness which is independent of the event, and establish an intent, as Senge and Fritz put it, for the pursuit of truth. Not my truth, or your truth, but more of an appropriate truth.

I have finally come to understand that I can't convince you, or anyone else, of anything. We each choose what we believe, and then we believe what we choose, and one reinforces the other. The best that I could possibly hope for is to provoke thought, which I can never do if I discount you, because you become deaf to my words. Finally we get to why I titled this paper The Columbo Approach.

For any of you who ever watched Columbo, the series, you may recall that Columbo never really tried to tell anyone anything. All he ever did was ask questions. And he asked questions in a rather unique fashion. Columbo asked questions from a position of self-discounting, pausing, scratching his head, always offering other people an opportunity to be helpful in relieving, or removing, his lack of understanding. This is just another instance of the principle that people hate to be sold, but they love to buy. Columbo essentially allowed other people to convince themselves of things. As I understand it, this is essentially the Socratic method, which means it is nothing new by any means. And still, there is care to be taken, for it is still essentially manipulation.

Regarding manipulation, I wrote this long ago.

  • You can attempt to get blood out of a stone.
  • You can attempt to motivate a stone to give blood.
  • You can empower a stone to motivate itself to give blood.
  • You can inspire a stone to empower itself to motivate itself to give blood.
  • You can embolden a stone to inspire itself to empower itself to motivate itself to give blood.
  • You can ennoble a stone to embolden itself to inspire itself to empower itself to motivate itself to give blood.

What you have is simply varying degrees of subtle manipulation. And people don't like to be manipulated, even when its in their own best interest. Which gets us around to the concept of freedom, but that's another article, yet very closely related and quite systemic in its implications.


  • Emergent Understanding: Learning without Teaching
  • The Process of Change
  • Systems Thinking World/Logical Levels
  • Davidson, Mark (1983) Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. J. P. Tarcher, Inc.
  • Fritz, Robert (1984) The Path of Least Resistance: Learning to Become the Creative Force in Your own Life. Ballantine Books
  • Fritz, Robert (1996) Corporate Tides: The Inescapable Laws of Organizational Structure. Berrett-Koehler
  • Senge, Peter (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday Currency
Questions & Comments to Gene Bellinger

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