Optionality – The Double-Edged Sword

Optionality – The Double-Edged Sword

Having asked some difficult questions in my previous post, and not found many clear answers, I’d also like to bring up the question of optionality.

I’m pretty sure that many people, particularly those of an implicitly violent predisposition, might rail against the idea of folks being free to choose whether to participate in change, and what changes to embrace or decline. Is this not a recipe for anarchy and the undermining of all discipline and authority?

Well, as I see it, folks choose whether to participate in change, and what changes they will each embrace or decline, in any case—whether they are nominally “free” to choose, or not. It’s just that in many situations, they keep their choices secret, and when their opting-out of certain changes IS somehow noticed, other folks remark on their apparent “disengagement”.

We can of course choose to treat people like children, coercing or otherwise motivating them to (pretend) to accept the changes.

But in organisations more Theory-Y in outlook, where the idea of treating people like consenting adults has more traction, is it not more congruent to make the optionality of involvement in change something clear and unambiguous? Might this not reap benefits in term of the health of the social fabric of the organisation? And might it not allow us all to see more clearly which changes have wide support, and which are seen as unhelpful or irrelevant?

“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”

― Gautama Buddha

I titled this post “…the Double-Edged Sword” because optionality cuts both ways. If folks are free to opt in or out of something, both options will likely have consequences.

I have found that folks often think deeply about the consequences of change (the opting-in to change choice) but little or not at all about the consequences of no-change (the opting-out of change choice). Ackoff refers to this phenomenon as “errors of commission vs errors of omission” and observes that people rarely get criticised for errors of omission (e.g. not taking a decision).

Whatever the reason, sticking with the status quo generally has at least as many consequences as opting for change.

Disclaimer: It would make my life a bit easier if folks could wake up to this.

– Bob

6 comments
  1. Do you ever ask folks “Why are you here?” or “What do you like about working here?” or Are there any changes that you’d like to see in our goals or our way of trying to reach them?” or “Are we doing everything just right?” or even just “How is it going today?”. Do you ever talk about anything besides news and sports and your kids? Why not?

  2. I think everyone’s lives would be easier if people started thinking like adults too. The passivity is trained into us by the education system and its perceived need for creating disciplined workers. Of course, disciplined workers aren’t supposed to think and have things “done to” them rather than being part of the decision.

    So maybe a big part of the task is also helping people break free of standing around with their hands out waiting to be picked, waiting to be told what to do, and instead taking responsibility.

    Maybe that’s what the problem is in a nutshell – fear of responsibility – it’s much easier to get kicked and quietly sabotage things, like Dilbert, than it is to participate. How peculiar!

  3. many people fear change ,although change is happening all around us all the time,and even when we want something badly,like a new baby,job,love, it takes a long time to adjust, some compassion is a good idea when encouraging people to think of change, maybe i am not here to make your life easier, it seems to me this is your job! I do not think using generalisations is helpful, it sounds to me like preaching,taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions seems to me to be a way forward.

  4. mrsnow76 said:

    Too many companies are managed by fear http://bit.ly/11cMmcZ which fosters this kind of “keeping under the radar” behaviour. I’d really like to see more people walking the way of being and feeling responsible for what they work on without having to fear management reprisals…

  5. I like this post very much. I’m often in a position of helping people and organizations adopt change. The people who want the change to occur often ask me how I will “obtain buy-in” or “convince” staff members to embrace the change. They appear puzzled when I tell them I never “sell” anything, I merely explain and assist if people wish me to do so. I want people to be equipped to make an informed choice about the proposed change. Love the Buddha quote.

  6. Matthew Hellicar said:

    Hey Bob – good post.

    “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

    “Change is the only road that leads to growth.” – Matthew Hellicar

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