In 1941 Isaac Asimov (who was a prolific writer – he wrote or edited over 500 books as well as hundreds of short stories) published a short story entitled Nightfall. Set on a distant planet, it’s a classic science fiction tale. The theme of the story is cultural and societal in nature; it’s about the consequences of change and our unpreparedness for it. Even after 70 years its message (and the conclusions we can reach from it) are relevant.
The action takes place on the planet Lagash. It seems to be a planet much like earth but the solar system that Lagash belongs to is unusual; there is one primary sun but there are also five secondary suns. It is never night on Lagash; the inhabitants live in a state of perpetual sunshine because of the number of suns and the complexity of their orbits. Since night never falls on Lagash they are not aware of the larger universe; for them the entire universe consists of six stars and one planet.
The story reveals that scientists have recently made several discoveries. Archeologists have uncovered evidence that the Lagash civilization collapses every 2,000 years. They have proof that there have been nine previous cycles. Astronomers have discovered aberrations in the orbits of the suns, leading them to hypothesize that there is another unseen object in their solar system, which in turn leads them to a theory about the potential of eclipses, one of which is predicted to be imminent. There are also religious nuances to the story. A group, called The Cult, possess ancient texts that speak about the Night and the Stars, two topics that are dismissed by many of the scientists as mere mythology. But to their credit some of the scientists try to anticipate what will happen if night does fall. One speculates that the universe might be bigger that they had ever considered; maybe one or two dozen suns. Some even build a chamber to simulate how stars might appear (and to see if their appearance drives them mad).
The eclipse begins as predicted and panic builds across Lagash. When totality is achieved and night finally falls to everyone’s horror they find that the issue isn’t the darkness. It’s the stars.
“With the slow fascination of fear, he lifted himself on one arm and turned his eyes toward the blood-curdling blackness of the window. Through it shone the Stars! Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shone down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.”
And for the tenth time, all across Lagash the cities burn.
I read a lot of science fiction when I was in my teens and I vividly recall reading Nightfall. In re-reading it now I am a bit disappointed when I realize that I kind of missed the point. I originally believed it to be just a good astronomy story (I thought my 14 year old self was brighter than that!) but now I realize that it’s about change, and I see three lessons.
What you see is all there is
In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman discusses the concept of ‘What You See Is All There Is’ – WYSIATS for short. Kahneman asserts (and he has the research to back it up) that because of the way our brain operates we jump to conclusions based on the consistency of information available. In short, we take the information available and create a coherent story out of it. It’s not the quality or the quantity of information, it’s the consistency of it. Sometimes we think it’s intuition or a hunch, and to quote Kahneman, “Much of the time, the coherent story we put together is close enough to reality to support reasonable action.”
But sometimes it isn’t. The more complex the situation the less lightly that the intuitive answer is correct. In Nightfall, the scientists have their story and the cultists have theirs. Both are reasonable based on the facts that they have gathered, but neither group sees the entire picture. They only see parts of the whole; yet both groups are confident that they are taking the correct actions.
How can we combat this tendency? Unless you are in a life-threatening situation taking the time for a period of sober second thought is a good idea. Take some time and expand your frame of reference by obtaining extra data or by taking a closer examination of the data you already have. It’s ok to have a hunch, just make sure that you find concrete facts to back up your intuition.
Ignorance is not bliss
The behavior of the characters on Lagesh is different depending on how well they understand what is happening. The scientists have their calculations, hypotheses and predictions. The cultists have their faith and their scriptures. The general population has neither facts nor faith; they just have their ignorance, uncertainty and fear.
Change initiatives in organizations are no different. It’s my experience that all too often we make the mistake of assuming that because we (the leaders, or designers, or implementers) understand the change initiative everyone else does too. That’s a dangerous assumption. I think in general organizations do a poor job of helping individuals understand the change that is occurring. Communication is a good start but it’s on its own it is not enough. In the past I have used an informal tool that I call ‘the Knowledge Continuum’ to measure how well a change initiative is understood. It looks like this:
Data –> Information –> Knowledge –> Understanding –> Insight
Based on what I have observed the communications for most change initiatives provide a great deal of information, some knowledge and virtually no understanding. (If your organization is an exception, then please accept my congratulations – you should package your methodology and sell it). I believe that the challenge is one of time and cost. It takes an effort (and it could be significant) to move along the continuum, regardless of whether it’s an entire organization or a single individual that is being moved. In my opinion, in virtually every case it is worth making the effort. Your change initiative needs more than a communication plan – it needs an understanding plan. I view this as an investment and the justification for it falls under the realm of risk management. Compare the cost of the understanding plan versus the potential productivity loss you risk from a disengaged workforce. Do the math and see what makes sense.
Prepare to be surprised
Sometimes we are the initiators of change and sometimes we have change thrust upon us. Regardless of how well prepared you are for change you will face surprises and uncertainties that will need to be resolved. They may not be as big as the one at the end of Nightfall, but even the smallest surprise can result in major setbacks. I remember when my first child was born; I had read dozens of books on baby care and parenting, but reading is different that experiencing. I was prepared as I could be but in retrospect nowhere near as prepared as I would have liked to be. I remember the first month of fatherhood as being a very intensive learning experience! But I muddled through and eventually became reasonably competent in the art and science of parenthood.
It can take time prepare yourself for change and to work through the intended (and unintended) consequences of change once it occurs. Temper your expectations and give yourself and your organization sufficient time to prepare for what might happen, to internalize what has happened and to address what still needs to happen.
Interested in reading Nightfall? Check it out here.