Thursday, 27 January 2011

Is it true or just another fad?

"Most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favour" says Robert Frost, poet speaking through his poem, "The Black Cottage". This poet was fascinated by the meaning of truth and decisions. He has produced many quotes which follow a similar train of thought. In this sense, he was ahead of his time. Only now, with a social constructionist theory of knowledge being considered (that there are many versions of knowledge and truths - depending upon one's values, culture, experiences, religion, and so on); overtaking the previous view of knowledge which was that theories were facts for a period of time - or at least until a new theory came along and knocked it off its perch! At one time the earth was considered flat, now it is round; we used to believe that doctors were witches, now they are life-savers; women have been considered equal to gods in some cultures and to devils in others; the same goes for cats; Hawking's Theory M topples Einstein's E=MC2 which in turn toppled Newton's Laws; etc. etc.

Only now are we accepting that our knowledge is constructed in time, space, situation and environment. Or, as per the opinions of Robert Frost, true knowledge is highly questionable. As he said later in life, "a jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer!"

It is this doubt in traditional organisational decision-making and thinking that now preoccupies organisational developmental psychologists, anthropologists, knowledge management specialists, management thinkers and social scientists. What methods do we really have at our disposal, in order to effectively handle such grey areas as "Truths"? Does someone have a bad attitude, as I have heard said about the naysayers to a change initiative, or are they making a valid point with genuine concern for the organisation? Many change initiatives fail in the earliest phases (studies show that around 50% do not get off the starting blocks; with the other 50% performing moderately to poorly against expectations).

Curiously, the methods for challenging truths are the ones we have become most preoccupied with lately. The most useful methods (IMHO) being developed have been the skills in facilitating groups to widen perspectives, altering their individual models of learning, and so altering long-held "truths". Done well, this allows more imaginative and better solutions to be found. Do it poorly however and groups will polarise further, clam up and even disband (often in a pretty visceral and unpleasant way).

Some real "hot spots" include attempts at altering power distribution and status (one of the many reasons why change initiatives are so fraught with conflict); religious beliefs; traditions; theoretical "certainties"; and crossing boundaries (boundaries are usually personal and highly subjective). It takes a very skilled facilitator to take all these into account. Placing a hand on the shoulder of another for instance, can represent very different things, with the potential for crossing a personal or cultural boundary of acceptable personal space. When Tony Blair, the UK's PM at that time, sat beside Libya's Colonel Gadaffi, Arab nations around the world recoiled at the insult of Gadaffi showing the sole of his shoe to Blair. To most Westerners however, this act went completely unnoticed. 

Another factor to consider is where a power imbalance is too great. Challenge, even though constructive, tends not to work particularly well here so firstly always try to level the playing field as much as possible (or get an impartial mediator to facilitate).

Where religions differences are at the root of the problem, enhanced discovery through education and exposure to other beliefs can be a better means of improvement, moreso than simply discussion forums or focus groups, as in the case of Northern Ireland's troubles where childrens' schooling ceased to be segregated. In doing so there became an improved chance to expose catholics to protestants and vice versa, at an earlier age, with a mutual goal of learning as well as reducing the dehumanisation that segregation had encouraged.

Broadening one's own experiences is often the most effective way of being able to see things from another perspective. As the old proverb says, "do not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes". In other words, if you're the boss, don't think that you can open up the group to challenge through using your position in the hierarchy - good bosses know that they tread a thin line here.

Equally, if you disagree with someone's religion, let it alone. We mightn't like the actions of those defined by a particular belief system but if it can be addressed at all, this can only be done in terms of specific interactions, treated very separately from the religious or spiritual beliefs (not easy to do at all). In the words of original System Thinker, Russ Ackoff, our leaders' jobs are now "to manage .. interactions, not actions, and the interactions of the unit managed with other internal and external organizations. This can only be done with a social systemic model in mind." (On The Mismatch Between Systems And Their Models, Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi).

These skills are not so much about knowing that we must challenge our long-held beliefs or truisms, but rather it is how these long-held beliefs can be changed, and whether we should try (include here how to anticipate limits). Creative methods in the fields of knowledge management, conflict resolution, psychology and learning are constantly being adapted, tested and challenged. Frequently I hear people say "if we do that then ...". "If .. then .. " statements are laden with assumptions (and faulty conclusions). When we hear them we need to ask questions such as "is this completely true?"; "when might that not be the case?"; "would anyone disagree with that assumption (and why)?". Of course, be aware that simply by asking these questions in an environment insufficiently primed for them, you could be lighting touch-paper!

I will be taking some time out from writing this blog in order to work on a Handbook for Organisational Learning. Please contact me if you would like more information on the methods for encouraging learning and better relationships in organisations.

1 comment:

Jim Daly (JDEvolutionist) said...

Interesting read; I have a few comments on truth!

In my view the Physical Universe exists and, as a consequence, thinking species, of which humans are but one of many, through their experience of that universe are able to derive, create, impressions of it that are products of both representation and interpretation and that exist as a prevailing state within the brain. This state is a product not only of their physical, cellular structure but also of their associated prevailing energy states and exists as a whole within in the greater whole of existence, a holon within the holarchy (Koestler).

This, combined with the unavoidable uniqueness of all the components of existence, means that within the Phenomenal Universe (mind) nothing is ever quite as it seems, nothing is ever totally true. Because our understanding exists only within the Phenomenal Universe the nature of it exists on a graduated basis that relates to the extent to which we interface with reality through the portal of the brain, a process which, as mentioned above, is totally dependent on interpretation of representative sensory stimulation. The more abstract the nature of the of a subject of understanding the more complex the understanding becomes due of the greater dependence of it on the internal, often untested, workings of the mind.

Uniqueness ensures that nothing is ever exposed to the totality of existence, although wholeness ensures that the Condition of Existence to which everything is exposed is a prevailing state of the whole in the location of its existence. Consequentially and in combination with the representative state of sensory experience, originating both externally and internally, and the nature of the interpretative processes of the brain based on states resultant on that experience, the mind only ever has a degree of understanding of truth. Because there is only a degree of understanding it follows that there is, of necessity, an inherent misunderstanding of experience; in other words mind, the Phenomenal Universe, is inherently prone to error. Truth, as an absolute, does not exist in the Phenomenal Universe, there is only the degree to which we understand truth.

We have the potential to increase our understanding of truth by interfacing with the Physical Universe through the portal of the brain, being the gateway between reality and mind, by means of our behaviour (where reality is defined as the physical universe, which is free of error and hence true; a philosophical supposition!). Hence the probability of our experience of a physical object being true is high, approaching one, where as that of our understanding of abstract ideas being true can, in many cases, approache zero, due to the inherent error that resides in our minds. The development of truth in our understanding of abstract concepts is inherently fraught with difficulty and we frequently pursue, and are pursuing, fallacious lines of thinking for long periods of time (radical fallibility and fertile fallacies - George Soros). Your contention that M Theory is attributable to Hawkins is an example! (I think I'm right in saying that Edward Witten et al. were its core proponents).

Reality is made more complex by the realisation that the Phenomenal Universe is of course a part of it, a component of the total universe, that evolved combination of the Physical and Phenomenal Universes, the Physphen Universe, the Whole.

Regards, Jim