Author, Consultant, Executive Coach - Helping people and organizations grow into desired results

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

2010: New thinking for a new year

Summary: 2010 is the UN's International Year of Biodiversity and a great moment to learn from supposedly "dumb" animals, forget our arrogance, and remember our connection to everything that happens around us. Read why thinking holistically will help your organization in 2010 and how, paradoxically, leaders who change as little as possible in what people are doing are more likely to meet with success in their overall change initiatives.

The UN has designated 2010 the International Year of Biodiversity and I think the timing couldn't be better.

Human beings are profoundly out of touch with the world we live in and that sustains our very existence. We act as though we're above and separate from it. We even act surprised and almost personally offended when natural disasters demonstrate our vulnerability and how dependent we really are on our environment and planet.

Who's the "dumb animal"?

Human beings can be over-fond of the label "unique" as relates to our species. And nowhere is our arrogance better demonstrated than in our attitude towards other animals. Ever since Aristotle put humans at the top of what became the Judeo-Christian "Great Chain of Being" we've regarded ourselves as not just different from all other creatures, but superior.

Over the holidays I read the fascinating and very funny book Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. Up to his untimely death, Alex the African Grey parrot provided tremendous insight into the world of animal cognition.

Consider for a moment that we commonly say bird-brain to describe someone's stupidity or lack of thought. Similarly, we use the word parroting to indicate simply repeating after someone else without understanding what they've said.

Yet this non-primate, non-mammalian creature with a walnut-sized brain learned elements of communication at least as well as a chimp (our nearest animal cousins). And Alex certainly possessed what you would call a personality, as the book repeatedly and hilariously describes.

His obituary in The Economist (no less!) summarized his many accomplishments:
By the end, Alex had the intelligence of a five-year-old child and had yet to reach his full potential. He had a vocabulary of 150 words. He knew the names of 50 objects and could, in addition, describe their colours, shapes and the materials they were made from. He could answer questions about objects' properties, even when he had not seen that particular combination of properties before. He could ask for things—and would reject a proffered item and ask again if it was not what he wanted. He understood, and could discuss, the concepts of “bigger”, “smaller”, “same” and “different”. And he could count up to six, including the number zero (and was grappling with the concept of “seven” when he died). He even knew when and how to apologize if he annoyed Dr Pepperberg or her collaborators.*
Dr Pepperberg summarized Alex's legacy as follows:
Clearly, animals know more than we think, and think a great deal more than we know. Alex taught us that our vanity had blinded us to the true nature of minds, animal and human. [...] Alex taught me to believe that his little bird brain was conscious in some manner, that is, capable of intention. By extrapolation, Alex taught me that we live in a world of thinking, conscious creatures. Not human thinking. Not human consciousness. But not mindless automatons sleepwalking through their lives, either.
How much more disgusting and shameful it is, then, that we treat animals so badly. We have long known of the intelligence of marine mammals, yet Japan secretly slaughters dolphins at Taiji and whales in the Antarctic with its illegal hunting program. Graphic videos of Chinese fur farming and the Canadian seal hunt depict sickening cruelty that can only be inflicted by those with the callous view that animals are things, not thinking, feeling beings.

The Big Picture - it's all connected

The reductionist scientific approach has traditionally sought to understand the world by looking at it from outside, breaking it down into composite parts to see how it works. Despite our arrogance in viewing humans as unique and apart from the world, the work with Alex and other similar research shows that we are not superior to all other creatures and the idea of humans' separateness from the rest of nature is no longer tenable.

Remember the Butterly Effect? This metaphor suggested that small effects in one part of an interconnected ecosystem (say, the movement of a butterfly's wings in Brazil) can produce large effects elsewhere in that system (for example, a tornado in Texas).

Chaos/complexity theory and quantum mechanics have similarly challenged the reductionist scientific view by demonstrating the interdependence of multiple forces and undermining the notion of an objective outside observer.

In short, we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. If we reckon we're the smartest of the animals, it's about time we started acting that way and pay attention to the state of our planet and fellow furry/feathered/fishy residents.

New thinking for the workplace

The lesson in 2010 for people in organizations: think holistically. Changes in one part of an organization will have knock-on and ripple effects elsewhere. Everyone is part of something bigger, and in a company you're all in the same boat - so it makes good sense to communicate with each other to ensure that boat stays afloat and on course.

With change initiatives, some leaders adopt a "change everything" approach to organizational development, seeking radical and widespread change in very short order. These leaders quickly face predictable reactions and resistance. These are the "fight/flight/freeze" responses as follows: with FIGHT people exhibit outright hostility and seek to sabotage the change efforts; FLIGHT means people pay lip-service and seem hyper-compliant but are not engaged and have effectively disconnected from the process; and in FREEZE people are overwhelmed and paralyzed, hoping it will all just go away.

By contrast, there's a positive application of the Butterfly Effect that you can use to your advantage. Since small changes can produce quite large results elsewhere over time, if you can find the right place to make a change it can often create the desired results.

So paradoxically, the leader who changes as little as possible in what people are doing is more likely to meet with success. Small changes are less scary and much less likely to evoke a fight/flight/freeze response. Successfully making a few small changes in key areas will, in turn, actually make a big difference to the organization - and do so without unleashing debilitating anger/insecurity/fear.

To find out more about how tmc can help you identify your key areas ripe for successful small changes, contact me directly.

*-On the subject of parrots, coincidentally over the holidays I also watched the documentary film The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and was moved by its story of "An uncommon bond between man and nature." A great follow-on to Alex and Me, highly recommended.

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