railway tracks being laid

what is change?

If a factory is torn down but the rationality that produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves.”

Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

When thinking about change – particularly in a government context – the temptation is to make the biggest explosion in order to cause the most significant possible derailment.

This approach is satisfyingly dramatic. It feels like change. But it reduces organisational change to a short sharp shock. We slow our speed for a few minutes as the twisted metal of the motorway car pile-up recedes in the rear view mirror, or we stop running the risk of that drink before driving home at Christmas time after seeing a shocking advert on a bar mat.


Soon enough, we return to our normal cruising speed and our normal bar orders.  When the train is put back on the tracks, it’s heading to the same destination, although probably at a slower speed because of the increased safety standards implemented as a result of the derailment.


If change is not measured by the explosion of the derailment but by the slow laying of new tracks, a small gradient and a limited turn at a time, what does this mean? I think it means looking past the big bangs (particularly, as Matt says, when talking about momentum). Instead, we should be listening to the people who can see the long view: the people who handle the funding, the reporting, the contact centres. We should be looking at things like this:

(Opening quotation stolen from opening page of Thinking in Systems by Donella H Meadows; Header image Mount Washington Cog Railway Operators, 2000 by Wjkimmerle, CC by 3.0.)

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