My previous post was about the Declaration of Independence and how it’s a compelling example of a change manifesto. I can’t stop thinking about the phase ‘we hold these truths to be self-evident’. It has been tumbling through my brain incessantly, and the more I think about it the more I am awestruck.  The word ‘self-evident’ is absolute genius. (Fun fact: the original draft used the terms ‘sacred and undeniable’.)

Self-evident is a wondrous term. The word ‘evident’ is from the latin ‘evidens’; it means ‘obvious to the eye or mind’. The Founding Fathers are basically saying, “Don’t even think of arguing about this because it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. Don’t waste our time.”

And then this got me thinking – are there truths that I hold to be self-evident?

Surprisingly, there aren’t that many. I’m not typically a ‘black/white’ kind of guy; I’m more a ‘shades of grey’ person. (I know what you are thinking and you can stop right now. I can see far more than just fifty.)

But I do hold a few self-evident truths. From the perspective of change management, there are three.

I hold these truths to be self-evident: That you know less than you think you know, that you have less control over things than you think you do, and that there are no silver bullets.

You know less than you think you know

One of the challenges that you have is that while you possess a certain depth and breadth of experience (and it may be considerable) as well as a body of knowledge that spans many areas (which also may be considerable), you also have a set of biases, preconceived notions and beliefs (which are definitely considerable).  It is these beliefs that cause you dismiss or to not even consider options that lie outside your experience. This behavior is called confirmation bias. When confirmation bias takes hold you start to only see facts that support your preconceived notions and tend to dismiss objections and exceptions as irrelevant or immaterial. You also start to underestimate the difficulty of the task at hand because you are focusing on the desired outcome rather than likely outcome.

How should you combat this?  How do you counteract your own tendency towards ‘blue sky’ thinking? I have a few suggestions. Research initiatives that are similar in nature and learn from their success, and more importantly, their failures. Engage some individuals with relevant experience to review your plans. Get someone who you trust to act as a devil’s advocate and work on developing clear, objective arguments against the approach you are taking and then make sure you can counter the arguments. When exceptions arise don’t dismiss them out of hand, ask why they occurred and make sure that you get real answers. Invest some time in searching for evidence that contradicts your assumptions.

You have less control over things than you think you do

There are a number of things that you can control. You can control your behavior. If you are in a position of authority to some degree you can control the behavior of others. You can control how time is allocated. This is good news if you are an operations manager or a project manager because controlling the tasks performed by the individuals who report to you is critical to getting work done. But there is bad news as well; there is a multitude of things you can’t control; these things are not normally considered in your decision making process because you are operating under the illusion of control. You can’t control the weather. Or when someone falls ill.  Or wins the lottery. Or gets hit by a bus. Or when they have an argument with their spouse and spend the whole day wondering why they got married in the first place. Or when a server blows up or an assembly line fails. Or when a critical supplier or customer unexpectedly goes out of business. The list goes on and on. The universe of things that you can’t control is vastly larger than the one where you have control.

Planning for foreseeable issues is risk management.  The real challenge arises when you need to plan for unforeseeable risks – for uncertainty. For this there are no easy answers. Build contingency into schedules. Hire competent people and make sure you keep them engaged. Model and simulate the end state and see where the breakdown and bottlenecks occur. Establish metrics and monitor them, and don’t ignore the exception cases. And when an uncertain event occurs, be prepared to react quickly and decisively.

There are no silver bullets

Human beings like easy. Easy is good, it’s understandable and it doesn’t require a lot of effort on anyone’s part. Need proof? Watch late night TV for a little while and you will see exercise machines that will remake you in just 20 minutes a day; diet regimens that cause the pounds to just melt away; a countertop oven that can cook your entire Sunday dinner in less than an hour. Plus you can find love – just dial this phone number now, operators are standing by!

The software industry is rife with companies that promote their software as the be all and end all. Just buy Acme WhizBang! Version 1.0 and watch your productivity skyrocket! Guaranteed improvements of up to 200%! Installs in less than a day! Up and running in a week! Except … except it’s just in beta testing, it’s never been integrated into an environment like yours, the training material isn’t complete and our company is bleeding money and is trying to sell itself to Google or Oracle or to anyone who’s buying. But please don’t delay – this software is all you need!

Don’t be fooled. Successful change requires clearheaded thought and significant effort – anyone who tells you otherwise is misleading you.

But what do you think?  Am I too pessimistic? Or maybe too pessimistic? Are there self-evident truths that I should have included? Feel free to comment!

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