The Optical Illusions of Change

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Context is everything.

It affects how we see.

As demonstrated by Beau Lotto, founder of the hybrid art studio and science lab, Lottolab, color lets us see the similarities and differences between surfaces.  But when you vary the parameters, when you change the context around which you see, you change the color that falls to your eye.  As a result, the light that falls onto your eye is meaningless because it could mean literally anything.

This explains both the problem of change management as well as the solution because what’s true for sensory information is true for information more generally.  There is no inherent meaning in information.  It’s the context around that information and what we do with it that matters.

If we want to create behavior change, we have to first understand what people see, and second, change the context around what they see.  This helps them see the same information differently.

After finishing the first day of a two-day change readiness workshop, the program manager for the project, a VP of human resources, came up to me and said, “I get it.  I get it.  I get it.  But I have to tell you, I feel terrible right now.”

“Yeah, why’s that?”  I asked.

“Every project I’ve ever done before just examined the project context only. That was the extent of our change readiness assessment.  And when you started asking about our business goals and organization politics and personalities of executives and how our department operated, I thought you were headed into dangerous territory.  It was stuff we couldn’t control.

“But now I see that by understanding the entire context–the project and how the project fits into the overall organization–we are better prepared to manage the unknown.  It broadens our perspective.”

“So why do you feel terrible?”

“Because now that I can see this clearly, I can’t hide behind excuses.  I have to do this additional work if we want the results we say we do.  That’s a much tougher job because it’s about managing relationships, not producing PowerPoints.”

And that’s about navigating uncertainty because only through uncertainty do we listen closely enough to develop a deeper understanding of the perceptions of others.

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