14 Jan 2015

How changes can be an opportunity: the force of new thinking

Paradigm shift: change as a state of mind

When the climate of the world changed 65 million years ago, there was little the dinosaurs could do. Dinosaurs as a species were indeed able to adapt to new the situation by means of forces of natural selection and adaptivity of the genes. However, climate changes created a real paradigm shift. Species such as mammals not only survived but started to dominate the planet by their intrinsic ability to adapt to changes. Being warm-blooded, for example, they were able to live in different climates. Only a few hundred thousand years ago, a new species emerged in the Savannah areas of Africa: the humans. They rapidly started to dominate the world because of a few “killer applications”, such as the ability to communicate and cooperate, which essentially require the capability to “think”, and the adaptivity which results from this. Humans rapidly dominated everywhere on the planet. They simply used their intelligence to adapt to whatever situation they encountered. Essentially, they were able to develop new thinking, when needed.
However, the changes we see now are unprecedented. The way of thinking which led to success one generation ago, is now irrelevant since the environment is so different. The need to adapt thinking increases together with the speed of external change. As a result, we can no longer rely on the traditional ways of adapting. We can no longer rely on our universities that teach young people new insights, and hoping that these learnings remain relevant during their working life. We can no longer expect that people, which teach young people how to think, adapt their teachings to the new world as it is emerging. This results in yet another paradigm shift. Waiting till our thinking adapts to new situations is no longer relevant. We need to change the way we think about ‘changing thinking’. To realise this, we need a
deep understanding on how this works. But, even more importantly, we need to understand what drives new, creative, adaptive thinking, and we need to do all we can to create the right environment to do so. 

Dynamic environment and the need for dynamic thinking

If we understand this, the next steps are simple. But first, let us determine in a systematic way what impacts peoples thinking. Then, we can determine how to safeguard the environment in which people work, ensuring people can adapt their thinking.


  • First, there is a need to move from incremental thinking to transformational thinking. Incremental thinking remains valuable and relates to increasing productivity, enhancing internal communication, and good HR practises. However, incremental thinking will also lead to the traditional one digit improvements, which are key for long term success, but will not result in moving rapidly to a state of Peak Performance. Some observations from reality help to understand transformational thinking. We all have observed that people who are really good in something are not 10 or 20% better than their peers, but often 10 or 20 times better. We see that small teams in the biotech industry often are 50 to 100 times more productive in finding new advanced medicines than the traditional pharmaceutical companies.
  • Second, we need to see our organisation as a team of individuals working together rather than as a structure with departments and hierarchical levels. To change, we need to ask ourselves how this interaction really works. Are people working in a “flow”? What drives them? What do they think they contribute to society? To the team? Why do they fail to go “full blast”? This means we have to assess deeper motivations and use methods that are able to capture this in a systematic way. 
  • Third, we need to integrate the above way of thinking into a sustainable situation 9. For example, an organisation that is built around people and teams will attract more people with the same spirit and value, reinforcing this culture and representing an asset in the “war for talent”. This will also lead to an increased level of customer intimacy, which will again reinforce and solidify this culture. Understanding these dynamics will lead to consistent actions that reinforce each other and create a situation where an organisation is growing based on culture rather than as a result of top down actions. 
  • Fourth, we need to think of our organisation as a complex adaptive system. This means, we have to see the organisation as a complex entity with both technological (techniques, tools, ict, etc.) and social (interaction, leadership, communication, etc.) dimensions 5. We also have to think of our organisation as needing adaptivity, implying it is able to respond immediately and adequately to external changes. As these changes are fast and complex, the traditional way where management is looking at the external environment and reorganize from time to time to respond, is no longer enough. Management needs to create an organisation which is truly adaptive, meaning employees have the possibility to stay fully in touch with the external world and respond immediately to changes. This is often not possible in traditional companies as management layers regularly monopolize and filter information from the outside world.