Heraclitus and Parmenides – a metalogue about organizational change
“Organizations are Heraclitian, but Parmenides is invariably in charge.” –Stafford Beer (paraphrased)
Heraclitus: Hello Parmenides, it’s been a while! What have you been up to since we last met?
Parmenides: Heraclitus, it is good to see you my old friend. You’re not going to believe it, but I’ve been doing some consulting work on managing change in organizations.
Heraclitus: [laughs] You’re right, that is beyond belief, particularly in view of your philosophical position on change. So, have you recanted? Have you now come around to the truth that everything changes and nothing stands still?
Parmenides: Ah, yes I am familiar with your views on change my friend, but I hate to disappoint you. My position remains the same as before: I still believe that the world is essentially unchanging. The key word here is “essentially” – by which I mean that the changes we see around us are superficial and that the essential properties of the world do not change. Indeed, as paradoxical as it may sound, understanding this unchanging essence enables us to manage superficial changes such as those that happen in organizations.
Heraclitus: I’m not sure I understand what you mean by unchanging essence and superficial change...
Parmenides: OK, let me try explaining this using an example. Let us consider the case of a physical law and a real world situation to which it applies. A concrete instance of this would be Newton’s Law of Gravitation and the motion of a spacecraft. The former represents the unchanging essence while the latter represents one of its manifestations. The point is this: the real world (as represented by a moving spacecraft) appears to be ever changing, but the underlying unity of the world (as represented by Newton’s law) does not change. If one understands the underlying unchanging laws then one has the power to predict or control the superficial changes.
Heraclitus: Hmm….I don’t see how it relates to organizations. Can you give me a more down to earth illustration from your work? For example: what is the “unchanging essence” in organizational change?
Parmenides: That’s easy: the unchanging essence is the concept of an organization and the principles by which they evolve. Consultants like me help organizations improve performance by influencing or adjusting certain aspects of their structure and interactions. However, the changes we facilitate do not affect the essence of the entities we work with. Organizations remain organizations, and they evolve according to universal laws despite the changes we wrought within them.
Heraclitus: Ah Parmenides, you are mistaken: concepts and principles evolve in time; they do not remain constant. Perhaps I can convince you of this by another means. Tell me, when you go into an organization to do your thing, how do you know what to change?
Parmenides: Well, we carry out a detailed study by talking to key stakeholders and then determine what needs to be done. There are a host of change models that have come out of painstaking research and practice. We use these to guide our actions.
Heraclitus: Are these models akin to the physical laws you mentioned earlier?
Parmenides: Yes, they are.
Heraclitus: But all such models are tentative; they are always being revised in the light of new knowledge. Theory building in organizational research (or any other area) is an ongoing process. Indeed, even physics, the most exact of sciences, has evolved dramatically over the last two millennia – consider how our conception of the solar system has changed from Ptolemy to Copernicus. For that matter, even our understanding of gravity is no longer the same as it was in Newton’s time. The “unchanging essence” – as you call it – is but a figment of your imagination.
Parmenides: I concede that our knowledge of the universe evolves over time. However, the principles that underlie its functioning don’t change. Indeed, the primary rationale behind all scientific inquiry is to find those eternal principles or truths.
Heraclitus: It is far from clear that the principles are unchanging, even in a so-called exact discipline like physics. For example, a recent proposal suggests that the laws of physics evolve in time. This seems even more likely for social systems: the theory and practice of management in the early twentieth century is very different from what it is now, and with good reason too – contemporary organizations are nothing like those of a century ago. In other words, the “laws” that were valid then (if one can call them that) are different from the ones in operation now.
Parmenides: You’re seduced by superficial change – you must look beneath surface appearances! As for the proposal that the laws of physics evolve in time, I must categorically state that it is a minority view that many physicists disagree with (Editor’s note: see this rebuttal for example)
Heraclitus: I take your point about the laws of physics…but I should mention that history is replete with “minority views” that were later proven to be right. However, I cannot agree with your argument about superficial change because it is beyond logic. You can always deem any change as being superficial, however deep it may be. So let me try to get my point across in yet another way. You had mentioned that you use management principles and models to guide your actions. Could you tell me a bit more about how this works in practice?
Parmenides: Sure, let me tell you about an engagement that we recently did for a large organization. The problem they came to us with was that their manufacturing department was simply not delivering what their customers expected. We did a series of interviews with senior and mid-level managers from the organisation as well as a wide spectrum of staff and customers and found that the problem was a systemic one – it had more to do with the lack of proper communication channels across the organisation rather than an issue with a specific department. Based on this we made some recommendations to restructure the organisation according to best practices drawn from organisational theory. We then helped them implement our recommendations.
Heraclitus: So you determined the change that needed to be made and then implemented the change over a period of time. Is that right?
Parmenides: Well, yes…
Heraclitus: And would I be right in assuming that the change took many months to implement?
Parmenides: Yes, about a year actually…but why does that matter?
Heraclitus: Bear with me for a minute. Were there any significant surprises along the way? There must have been things that happened that you did not anticipate.
Parmenides: Of course, that goes with the territory; one cannot foresee everything.
Heraclitus: Yet you persisted in implementing the changes you had originally envisioned them.
Parmenides: Naturally! We had determined what needed to be done, so we went ahead and did it. But what are you getting at?
Heraclitus: It’s quite simple really. The answer lies in a paradox formulated by your friend Zeno: you assumed that the organization remains static over the entire period over which you implemented your recommendations.
Parmenides: I did not say that!
Heraclitus: You did not say it, but you assumed it. Your recommendations for restructuring were based on information that was gathered at a particular point in time – a snapshot so to speak. Such an approach completely overlooks the fact that organisations are dynamic entities that change in unforeseen ways that models and theories cannot predict. Indeed, by your own admission, there were significant but unanticipated events and changes that occurred along the way. Now you might claim that those changes were superficial, but that won’t wash because you did not foresee those changes at the start and therefore could not have known whether they would be superficial or not.
Parmenides: Well, I’m not sure I agree with your logic my dear Heraclitus. And in any case, my approach has the advantage of being easy to understand. I don’t think decision-makers would trust a consultant who refuses to take action because every little detail about the future cannot be predicted.
Heraclitus: Admitting ignorance about the future is the first step towards doing something about it.
Parmenides: Yes, but you need to have a coherent plan, despite an uncertain future.
Heraclitus: True, but a coherent plan can be incremental…or better, emergent – where planned actions are adjusted in response to unexpected events that occur as one goes along. Such an approach is better than one based on a snapshot of an organisation at a particular point in time.
Parmenides: Try selling that approach to a CEO, my friend!
Heraclitus: I know, organizations are ever-changing, but those who run them are intent on maintaining a certain status quo. So they preach change, but do not change the one thing that needs changing the most – themselves.
Parmenides: [shakes his head] Ah, Heraclitus, I do not wish to convert you to my way of thinking, but I should mention that our differences are not of theoretical interest alone: they spell the difference between being a cashed-up consultant and a penurious philosopher.
Heraclitus: [laughs] At last we have something we can agree on.
Beer, Stafford (1997), “The culpabliss error: A calculus of ethics for a systemic world,” Systems Practice, Vol 10, No. 4. Pp. 365-380. Available online at: http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02557886
Note: the quote at the start of this piece is a paraphrasing of the following line from the paper: “Society is Heraclitian; but Parmenides is in charge.”