Building Sustainable Legacies

Opinions or Alternative Facts?

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability.

Here we are in 2017; and at the beginning of the New Year.  Last year, as a consequence of the USA presidential election, many in this country and around the world tried to grasp the concept of “post-truth”.  It is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “debates framed by appeals to emotions rather than facts”. And now, before even a month has passed, we are confronted with the claimed presidential authority of “alternative facts”.  While both “post truth” and “alternative facts” claims have been scorned in the political realm, haven’t we all experienced similar dilemmas within our organizations?  In this blog, I will reflect on the importance of differentiating between opinions and facts, in order to tackle organizational issues with clarity.

Facts vs. Opinions and Beliefs

Beliefs and facts are not equivalent. Beliefs are convictions that we hold to be true while facts comprise information backed by verifiable evidence.  Beliefs can be based on facts; however often they originate from our values, our identities and our assumptions about the world and hence meet, and arise from, some of our deepest human needs.  Consequently, beliefs, rather than facts, often inform our opinions about specific matters.

Being mere humans, we unconsciously confuse our opinions with facts.  It is almost our default mode because our world-views, the underlying framework for our opinions, have become like the operating system of our thinking.  Thus we likely believe that our opinions are true merely because they are our opinions.  And the level of certainty with which we hold our opinions does not correlate with whether we have based them on facts.  High confidence does not equal objective proof.[1]   This confusion becomes an issue as we join with others to solve problems and resolve our differences both in our personal and organizational lives.  

Importance of Differentiating Facts from Opinions  

Many times over the years I have been asked to work with groups in conflict.  Often the groups are paralyzed due to the members holding fast to their own arguments at the expense of entertaining the opinions of others.  I have seen a common pattern running through these situations.  The most rigidly held opinions tend not to be based on evidence and often are actually immune to it.  Contrary facts may actually strengthen their convictions!  This observation is supported by research reported this month (Jan. 2017) in the Scientific American:[2]

“When we are presented with facts that contradict our world-view we are likely to feel threatened and may merely double down on our beliefs.  The conflicting data presents a threat.2  Facts become the enemy to be slain.”

When faced with this intransigence, I have noticed that those involved have not identified the difference between facts and opinions, thus, again, believing that their opinions are true merely because they hold them.  To resolve these conflicts, we work together to uncover the assumptions that underlie the opinions.  Likewise we focus on exploring the evidence, or lack of it, related to the problems at hand. If the individuals involved are willing to suspend their assumptions/emotion for that limited time and purpose, then this process can lead to the resolution of some of their differences.  And as the facilitator, it is my job to ensure that members can own their emotions without feeling unduly threatened or disrespected.  Ideally the discussions lead to a greater understanding of the basis for an opinion and the motivation that underlies resistance to any contrary opinion or facts.  So-called “alternative facts” are examined within the context of beliefs, emotions and evidence.  Of course this approach is not guaranteed to succeed.   After all, strongly held beliefs can be tenaciously resistant to evidence.

My Facts vs. Your Facts

Everyone has the right to hold his or her own world-view.  However, I believe that all of us must attempt to understand the premises upon which our own and others’ views are based.  Of course our values, feelings and beliefs will always be the beginning point for our arguments and our actions.  However, I do believe that we should seek to understand and acknowledge the origins of our opinions.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Nevertheless, facts matter.  Of course no one will ever corner the market for facts. Individuals may have access to different facts.  Sharing this information can add to the collective pool of knowledge that allows good decisions to emerge.  However, some facts are more valid than others depending upon their basis. And alternative facts, to the extent to which they are stated without evidence, are never acceptable for justifying our opinions.  Rather, we should acknowledge those cases, where our opinions and conclusions are based on our own values or needs, rather than conjuring false evidence or stating our opinion as fact just because we believe it.  To do so requires self-insight and maturity.  As scientists remind us, science can never promise knowledge of absolute truth but it enables us to eliminate what is false.[3]

Organizations are complex and diverse. If we are to contribute to our own organization’s success, rather than hinder its progress, each of us should seek self-awareness.  As we understand ourselves, we will become more capable of appreciating the diversity of others.  Our ability to move forward together depends on mutual respect, which comes from understanding.  The future of our organizations, and indeed our societies, rests on our ability to leverage our differences to meet our common goals.  We have no room for post-truth or alternative facts.

[1] Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts. Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017

[2] Michael Shermer. How to Convince Someone when Facts Fail.Scientific American,  Jan 1 2017

[3] Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik. The Delusion of Alternative Facts.Scientific American, Jan 27, 2017

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


And suddenly, we were living in a new culture… How did that happen?

How do companies grow into new cultures? Can a given culture be changed? How palpable is a culture anyway? And if you wanted to change it, how would you go about it? These are questions that occupy Organizational Development consultants and researchers alike. At Business School Lausanne (BSL) we have decided to prototype new forms of organizations as a way to offer a living case study to our students. For the end of the year, I would like to offer a self-reflective piece about our organizational journey, from my own personal (and obviously, limited) perspective.  

On 30 September 2015, BSL had formally implemented self-organization (Holocracy) as its new way to organize itself. Now, one year and three months later, we are looking at ourselves in disbelief. We have become a living and breathing organism with its own distinct culture and sense of purpose. And we wonder: how did this happen?! This blog attempts an analysis by looking at six distinct time periods in the course of the last 15 months.

Step 1: October to December 2015 – We can learn this. The initial three months of implementing Holacracy were colored with a tremendous (good) will to learn this new system. I think every single one of us put in discipline, time, energy, and an open trust. We learned the technique of Holacracy, got burned by what it unveiled in us regarding how judgmental and close-minded one is, and we stopped and wondered, does this work? Some of us masterminded a massive systems-change that we proudly introduced in December 2015: from two circles, we shifted to five circles – in one go (a “circle” is something like a “department” or “business unit” – those roles that work together organize in a circle). Only later would we learn that this is absolutely not the way to go about solving “tension by tension”. We were still operating from a paradigm of hierarchy, quite unaware and unconscious, but willing to try. We attempted to separate “role” from “soul” and forgot about the “soul” in the process, without knowing what to do about it. Holacracy told us – “just trust the system”.

Step 2: January to March 2016 – In the deepest of darkness. After these initial three months of openly learning the mechanics of Holacracy, our team dove into a dark place where we lost our previous natural sense of how to maintain personal relationships as a part of our professional collaboration. Suddenly, everything felt mechanic, cold, and distant and there seemed to be no place to connect from person to person. Our Holacracy coach kept on telling us: “Holacracy structures how you work together; how you want to relate to another, what we call ‘tribe space’, that is up to you to define.” We didn’t know what to do with this advice – “tribe space” was a term that didn’t resonate and sporadic attempts to create a “tribe space” were mostly left unattended. Critical colleagues raised concerns about a serious loss of trust in the team saying we have a big problem.

Step 3: April to May 2016 – Addressing dormant people issues. These dark three months forced some previously unaddressed and uncomfortable people issues into bright daylight. We had learned to talk straight and to listen to one another – one of the great benefits of Holacracy’s very mechanic technics. This dialogue culture enabled us to openly address pain points that we didn’t have the courage to address before. We realized that not everybody would make it and we made generous offers to those that would not be able to dance this new journey of self-responsibility and co-creation with us at a much heightened innovation speed. These talks didn’t help the sense of darkness in the team, to the contrary, now the problems were in the open and things looked and felt bleak.

Step 4: June to August 2016 – Inventing a new recruitment process. Connected to step 2, we were facing some serious recruitment challenges that resulted from having addressed the people pain points. Quite unknowingly, we stumbled into a number of new practices that entirely overhauled our recruitment process. We started to ask very different questions to candidates, asked them to write an essay about how they might do in a self-organizing structure, and we used new strength-based assessment tools. We formalized a policy that the committee should consist of concerned colleagues that were intimately knowledgeable and concerned with the roles a new-hire would take. The blog “we are hiring for DNA” explains this well.

Step 5: September to October 2016 – Questioning the performance evaluation and bonus system. During the busiest time of our year, we also had to do our performance reviews. Given that we were new at self-organization, we didn’t quite know how to do this in our new setting. Those partners who cared formed a committee that defined in a few pragmatic sessions a process that seemed reasonable and time efficient. The result: a small disaster! By now, our team was entirely comfortable to discuss uncomfortable issues collectively and we quickly assembled a list of things that didn’t work. We agreed that we no longer wanted to tie our financial bonus to our peer-based performance review. So how to advance? Simply, a call to those among us to self-organize and propose a better system for the coming year. This is an excellent example of what is called “safe enough to try”. We tried, it didn’t work so well, we still all accepted and embraced the consequences and vouched to do better next year. No hard feelings! As you can see, the goodwill and the trust were back – in a very new and different way. Not a trust in a boss or a hierarchy, nor a need to plead for personal favors, a trust in our way of making decisions, a trust in the ability for everybody to speak up and be respected, a trust that the others cared.

Step 6: November to December 2016 – The real test with titles and new-born authority.With our new-hires in place and with priorities cleared for the coming months, the question arose as to what to do with our old titles, in particular, “the Dean”. We recognized that our outside world demanded such a title and position, even if, internally, we had delegated its accountabilities into a variety of roles and circles and the Dean was no longer a reality for us. There were four of us with external roles that at times resembled what is traditionally called a “Dean” role. In a governance meeting we discussed, argued, considered, reflected, rejected, improvised and eventually agreed that we shall be having the “Dean” title available to those who have an external representation need, clarifying that four people can use the title in four different special areas, such as academic programs, executive education, thought leadership, applied research. The website adjustment is still underway and shows how hot a potato titles are. Meanwhile, new authority arose elsewhere: we will be making three significant leadership changes on 1 January 2017 in three key circles. Leadership in the sense of ensuring that resources and competencies are directed at realizing the identified mission. As my last act of “letting go”, the BSL Company Lead Link (a position even the Holacracy inventor Brian Robertson still holds at his company) will be energized by Carlo Giardinetti, while Branko Saintakes over the School Lead Link and Massimo Baroni takes over the Support Service Lead Link. All of these appointments are announced as being intended for the year 2017, and we shall be seeing who has appetite and talent to embrace such roles thereafter.  Denitsa Marinova has risen to be our inspiration in her new people role, offering daily positivity challenges during the Advent months. David Kibbe says that he feels that partners take more time to connect personally, creating a foundation for getting things done so much more easily. And last but not least, our newly invented Gap Frame Weeks have transformed the way the administration and the faculty interact with the student body, something that was palpable at our Holiday Season Party, which was a huge success. We are closing the year on an unprecedented high, “looking back at the pain with appreciation and understanding” (Aurea Almanso) and “feeling new wind beneath our wings” (David Kibbe). Welcome 2017 – we are ready to embrace whatever is thrown our way!

Are these six steps necessary? Could we have anticipated or planned for them? Can you learn something from these? Do these steps provide insight into cultural transformation? I am not sure. Yet I am curious to continue with our “action research” to see if there is anything we and others can indeed learn, if only in hindsight. And that is one of the purposes of a year-end reflection, too!

To my blog correspondent, Kathy, I wish you strength to continue with your own personal journey of sense-making, most particularly in the coming year. It is a privilege to co-write this blog with you as it brings my own reflection about how to enable organizations to become sustainable and to contribute to taking the common good to new heights. Thank you for that and thank you for sharing so authentically your own journey in your last blog.

When Values Collide

Note: this article is part of The Transatlantic Debate Blog series, which forms a conversation between Dr. Katrin Muff and Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins on business sustainability. Read the previous post here.

In looking back over the blogs Katrin and I wrote this year, I noted that “change” is a theme connecting most if not all of them. We discussed the urgent need for change, various levels of change, forces that propel change as well as those that hinder it. We examined the need to understand our own change-related assumptions. We offered suggestions for how to become change experts. And last month Katrin described an engagement with a client where she facilitated a change process. All along we have acknowledged that change is difficult. This month I will reflect on how recent change-related challenges have confronted me personally and what I have learned as a result.

When Katrin and I were together this past summer, we discussed how differences in strongly held values complicate a change process requiring commitment. Just as we aren’t willing to compromise our own values, neither are others whose values diverge from our own. I came away from our conversation with a firm belief that that this dilemma deserved significant attention. Soon thereafter, I was faced with the very quandary that we discussed. Currently I am still looking for a clear path towards a solution.

While only just barely surviving emotionally from the U.S. presidential election, I am struggling to find a way to respond to others who welcome a political change that I believe violates my deeply rooted values. To make matters worse, many who seem to be embracing these changes are my childhood friends and family members. My unanswered question is whether we can find a way to move forward together.

I must admit my first inclination has been to avoid any uncomfortable interactions with those whom I perceive to be on the “opposite side”. Of course, readers of this blog know that I have argued against this behavior repeatedly and in fact throughout my entire professional life. I am not unaware of the dangers in adopting avoidance as a long-term solution. However, while my emotions are still high, ducking these uncomfortable interactions may be healthy for the short term.

As I look to the longer term, I wonder if I will ever be able to bridge what feels like a yawning gap dividing me from many others. Of course I am all too aware of the advice that I have offered others in this same predicament over the years. I have consistently advocated acknowledging the legitimacy of varying worldviews. I have urged others to accept the fact that some core values are deeply embedded and are difficult, if not impossible to challenge. Therefore the best approach is to seek to understand and perhaps find some overarching common ground.

Thus I have proposed that the best way forward is to engage with others in open and nonjudgmental conversation where each respects the other’s points of view. I do still stand by all of these suggestions for many if not most conflicts that rest on values differences.

However, at the same time I believe that some changes are worth resisting. It seems to me that occasionally we will be confronted with opinions and behaviors that are not worthy of respect even if they do represent the values of others with a different worldview. This is a conclusion that I draw reluctantly. I like to think that there are always avenues for finding common ground.

Nevertheless, I have concluded that sometimes we may face circumstances where respecting the values-driven opinions of others violates our own moral codes. Undoubtedly these situations are rare. And the trick is in recognizing them. Personally, this task is difficult for me. I, like most, am very good a rationalizing my own attitudes and behaviors. My avoidance of engaging with dissimilar others around the issues raised by the recent election could in fact be a rationalization. Or it could represent my being true to myself. I do believe that, at times, resistance is not only acceptable but also imperative. And, of course, I am aware that avoidance is not the same as resistance. Therefore to choose a path I must question my own motives and delve into actions that my convictions justify.

I am ending this blog with no firm conclusion concerning which path is the right one for addressing my current challenges. What I do know is that I must continue to ask these questions hoping that I will find an answer that I can embrace with conviction.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

10 steps toward organizational sustainability

What does it take to get an engineering company to embrace their care for a better world? Is it possible to provide access to the deeper meaning of sustainability to those who define it as either one-dimensional economic long-term survival, or as a predominantly ecological issue?

These were my questions as I prepared for my consulting day with a medium-sized traditional Swiss engineering company. The sustainability-fluent CEO had invited me to lead a workshop with his senior team, including the board, in a first conversation towards formulating a vision 2030 for a company that, in his view, had embrace sustainability. I am sharing here the step-by-step process of that very positive one-day workshop.

The design of the day involved some pre-work for the participants to enable me to ascertain the baseline from which we were working. At the same time I provided an accessible definition and framework of business sustainability to set the foundation on which they could build a common new language. The True Business Sustainability Typology developed by Thomas Dyllick and myself and produced into a convenient six-minute film came in handy ( I asked them to complete a survey, which consisted of the following questions:

Question 1: What does sustainability mean for you? How would you have defined it before watching the video? What changed after the video? For you, what is sustainability and what is it not? (open ended response)

Question 2: How clear is it for you how your company might live true business sustainability? (multiple answers, including: crystal clear; I see possibilities; I have mostly questions; I have some concerns; I see a contradiction; I am open and look forward)

Question 3: Which sustainability problems touch you most / are a priority in your life? (multiple choice from a selection of 24 sustainability issues picked from the Gap Frame tool that translates the SDGs into a country-by-country measure)

Question 4: What do you expect from a whole day sustainability workshop at your company and what is important for you to say upfront? (open ended question)

In my preparation, I analyzed their responses to understand where they stood and what concerns, issues and hopes they brought along and I developed brief personal profiles containing my impressions (and a photo). Since I had never met the team, I grouped them into categories that would allow me to frame their anticipated worldviews and perspectives, in the hope to anticipate their attitude and responses during the day. Most importantly, it allowed me to be lightheartedly prepared for those from whom I might have to expect resistance.

The workshop was designed to be varied, encouraging listening, thinking and talking, and shifting between plenum, individual and small-group work; it included standing sessions with circle meetings, peer walks, silent personal reflection, presentations, group work and, of course, a bit of physical activity to keep the body, mind and heart active and involved. The CEO’s opening words, which I had asked him to hold standing around a lunch table, were to the point and honest; he finished by saying: “Katrin, you need to understand that everybody is a bit afraid of you right now. We never stood together like this to start a day and when we look to the room where we work, we see a circle of chairs with some funny decoration in the middle”. I smiled it off and immediately switched to everybody doing some straightforward physical activities to re-connect their brains, awaken the body and overcome the awkward feeling by doing awkward things! From there on, the day began to bloom.

Let us look at the journey we took together and how this may be helpful to you too, whether you are a business leader or a strategic consultant.

The personal passion of everyone (circle seating): each participant brought a personal item in response to the question: “If I had a magic wand, what is the one thing I would change in the world?” This round of sharing and story-telling set the tone of the day and the level of depth and engagement in the conversation. It allowed clarification of the term ‘sustainability’, including its less obvious facets, and brought everybody on board by revealing their deep personal connection with one or more sustainability issues.

How ready is your organization for change (open circle seating): each participant was asked to assess where they placed their organization on a scale where 1 was ‘incremental change’ and 2 was ‘quantum leap’. The discussion revealed that the change readiness of individuals was higher than the change readiness of the organization. By introducing my inner-outer world model that shows the interconnection between personal development towards responsible leadership and organizational development towards sustainable business, we had a way to frame the discussion; we highlighted the danger that can arise when organizational stability and comfort slows of extinguishes individual initiative. I used Cameron & Quinn’s Competing Values Framework to direct the thought process into a simple question for assessment: is the organization more internally or externally focused, and is the organization more focused on stability or on flexibility? Together, in an open discussion, we assessed the company’s journey and identified future areas of focus if, indeed, the organization were to embrace a quantum leap.

What are the biggest sustainability issues in Switzerland (lecture): In 30 minutes I explained sustainability, starting with the WEF Global Risks Report on which sustainability issues keeps CEOs awake at night, and outlining Rockström’s planetary boundaries and Oxfam’s social foundation, which Raworth used to develop the safe operating space for humanity. I then introduced the N. Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) and the Gap Frame (a project led by Business School Lausanne), which is a translation of the SDGs into a relevant normative framework applicable not only to the Global South but to every single country. We looked at Switzerland and highlighted five or six of the most burning issues in the domains of environment, society, economy and governance. I ended by sharing their own answers to my pre-workshop survey (see question 3 above), allowing them to connect their personal passion and cares to wider issues of concern within Switzerland (the country their business operates in).

What does sustainability mean for your company (world café): we used four relevant topics from the balanced scorecard the company uses and spent an hour investigating how an outside-in approach, borrowed from the True Business Sustainability Typology (Dyllick & Muff) might inspire entirely new strategic business opportunities for them. This process allows for capturing current product and service improvements, as well as more creative reflection upon which of the company’s core competencies might contribute to solving sustainability issues in their geographic region. This was a good moment to integrate social aspects into the ‘employee’ dimension and magic new ideas arose regarding, for example, integration across generations and cultural groups. Each group reported back and the follow-on discussion provided an incredibly rich tapestry for future strategic options.

Dyllick-Muff (2016): True Business Sustainability

What does this mean for me? What opportunities open up? What is new? (partner walk): participants met in pairs and went for a digestive after lunch walk investigating the questions, allowing them to select among more personal dimensions or discussing concrete business insights. They were equipped with the instruction to focus on listening and were requested not to interrupt or comment on what their partner said. They came back to the room with great energy and a good connection both within and among themselves. The condensation process had started.

What insights have I gained? (silent individual reflection space): without any sharing, each partner was invited to find a comfortable space with his journal and to reflect quietly on what he had learned so far during the day and the insights gained, either personally or for the company. The palpable energy in the room was one of high concentration and creative depth. We had prepared a large wall with paper where partners wrote down their company insights for others to read and share. Rather than debriefing in the plenum, I invited all participants simply to read the comments of their colleagues.

What might be a sustainability vision for our company? (fishbowl set-up): the three ‘elders’ present (board members and CEO) were invited to have a conversation among themselves in an inner circle of chairs with the rest of the management team seated in a circle around them. For half an hour, the participants held the space for a deepening and soul-searching conversation among the most senior partners. The level of attention and listening was most intense in the best of ways. In a follow-on 30 minutes, the outside circle – consisting of the slightly younger management team – were invited to reflect on what they heard and what questions and answers emerged for them. The profound, open and honest, critical and daring discussion showed how the existing company culture had already prepared the team to engage in such conversations. Entirely new ideas arose, including the need for playfulness and prototyping, some conversations also queried many of the initial unquestioned assumptions. We were suddenly at a point where we had more questions than answers. The potential was raw; we were further from where we wanted to be and not quite where the CEO had hoped. This was a critical point to assess how to embrace this potential and capture its value while it was so ripe.

What does sustainability mean for your company? (assigned small teams): the break allowed me to reflect on what was next needed and to amend my agenda. I replaced an exercise that I had pre-agreed with the CEO, with an exercise that would allow everybody to walk away with clarity, while also capturing the value that had been generated thus far. This would enable discussions within small teams to arrive at a concrete outcome that could be shared. To add a notion of playfulness, I suggested that the team that defined sustainability for the company using the least amount of words would win. That turned creativity on! On another wall of paper, the teams designed their ideas, and subsequently pitched their slogans – some of which were pure magic. In the process, they redefined not only the company but also themselves, both individually and collectively. I had to entirely redesign the closing hour of the day.

What more is needed to make this day complete? (standing bar talk): rather than coming up with a plan for the next hour, I decided to ask participants what they each needed to leave with a feeling of accomplishment. The answers varied from a) immediate next steps for action, b) practical application of these great slogans (step 8), c) how does this translate to our plan for the next year, or three years, and d) I want you to give us a lecture on the True Business Sustainability Typology (the exercise I had pre-agreed with the CEO, which I couldn’t ignore!). While I asked each of them to note what they would do a) the next day at work and b) the next week at work, I prepared a short guide as to how to translate the session’s outcomes into the next one and three years, as well as a suggested path on including the rest of the company. The condensation process was achieved when each participant committed their next actions to the rest of the team. My short and medium-term suggestions focused on attending to where energy flows with ease rather than pursuing paths of high resistance (the philosophy of water) and to attend to the opportunities they would attract as a result of this new level of shared. And, of course, I gave my short 10-minute lecture on true business sustainability, using it to further anchor what we had worked on all day.

How do you feel as we leave this workshop? (circle seating): every participant closed the day with some words on how he had begun the day and how he was leaving it. I have never experienced a more energized, inspired and motivated group of engineers in my life! What a humbling moment to be a part of.

These 10 steps are by no means the only way for a company to begin its shared journey of anchoring strategy and vision in the face of global challenges, but they show one way that worked. I am keen to see many companies succeed in this deep change. Kathy Miller in her last blog examined the different mental models that change agents can have and explained that, depending on which model they hold, their approaches will differ significantly. In many ways the above workshop was a means to get a change process going, only. An initial step in a much longer journey.

If you are interested in learning more about these processes, methodologies, and tools, please get in touch via

The images used in this blog are copyright of Katrin Muff.

Mental Models

We live in a complex world fraught with challenges that require large-scale change. Thus all of us need to become change experts who can function at the individual, organizational and societal levels.  These statements echo the themes of Katrin Muff’s blog last month.  I agree with her premises.  Therefore, this month I will build on her idea by examining the importance of mental models to change expertise.  This is a complicated and much discussed topic, and I don’t intend to cover it thoroughly.  I will merely introduce it in this blog and include my arguments as to why it is important for change expertise.

What Are Mental Models

Mental models are the frameworks and filters through which we view the world. Even though our mental models are often hidden, we all have them. They include our values, assumptions and beliefs, and they shape our attitudes and behaviors.  We develop our mental models through our individual and cultural experiences.

Ideally these frameworks evolve as we gain new experiences and information.

However, mental models may blind us to ideas that do not conform to our version of the world.  When these models become rigid, they can prevent us from understanding others and can limit our ability to find new and creative ways to solve problems.

Challenging our Own Mental Models

Assumptions are key components of our mental models.  And, by definition, assumptions are accepted as true without question or proof.  Therefore, we are indeed unlikely to be fully aware of the frameworks that guide our thoughts and actions. However, we can learn to bring our mental models to the surface and to challenge our assumptions.  Some common methods include:

  • Interacting with others whose viewpoints differ significantly from our own.
  • Exposing ourselves to situations outside of our normal experiences.
  • Asking ourselves why we act as we do.
  • Examining what our thoughts and speech imply about our mental models.
  • Analyzing how we developed our assumptions, e.g. what information, experiences, values might underlie them.
  • Actively look for evidence that might disconfirm the way we view the world.

Mental Models and Change

Mental models concerning change vary and certainly influence how change experts approach their tasks.  I describe the following two frameworks as examples.

Mental Model 1:   Many change experts assert that people naturally resist change.   They imply that the role of the change agent is to overcome the opposition.  They offer suggestions on how to understand resistance, how to prevent it, and most frequently how to overcome it.  They tend to recommend presenting facts, communicating frequently, making rational arguments and engaging in all kinds of persuasive techniques to win over the challengers.  Their desired outcome is to bring others around to their point of view. Most likely their underlying assumptions include the following:


  • I can change others.
  • Most people don’t like change and thus will resist it.
  • People are rational in reacting to change.
  • My efforts are effective to the degree that others adopt my point of view.


Mental Model 2: Now let’s consider a different framework for understanding change.  Change experts operating within this framework suggest that people usually react to change in stages. In the first stage, they are likely to experience ambivalence. The role of the change expert at this stage is to assist people in resolving this ambivalence. Thus the change expert would accept ambivalence as normal and acknowledge its validity to those experiencing it.  In this first stage, the change expert would assist others in weighing the pros and cons associated with the change.  They would ask open-ended questions as they seek to understand the others’ views.  They would engage in more listening and reflecting than telling and persuading.  They could tentatively offer facts and opinions only after listening to the others carefully.  When they do so, they should also share their own underlying assumptions. In all cases, they should remain non-judgmental and avoid implying that they have all of the answers.  Most likely the underlying assumptions of this approach include the following:

  • I cannot change others.
  • People experience ambivalence when faced with change.
  • All change holds pros and cons.
  • People react to change emotionally before responding rationally.
  • People will make their own choices as their ambivalence lessens.
  • My efforts are effective when people make choices and move forward.

I am not suggesting that one of these mental models is more superior to the other. I am arguing that the differing assumptions underlying each of these models will guide how the change expert acts.

In our complex world, no one has all of the answers for solving our individual, organizational or societal problems.  However, as change experts, we can function more effectively in all three levels when we learn to challenge our own assumptions. Especially at the societal level, our ability to consider multiple mental models is critical.  By exploring various ways of viewing the world, we are more likely to land upon new and more creative solutions to the issues that often seem to be so intractable.

Author: Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins 

Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.

We Need to Become Change Experts!

In this blog, I will highlight three different levels of change: 1) at the personal level where change is about changing oneself, 2) at the organizational level where we have a variety of tools to accomplish change as a group, and 3) at the societal level, where we urgently need to understand how to bring awareness to those occupying positions that we consider dangerous (illustrative events being the U.S. elections and the “Brexit” referendum) so that “they change”. More specifically, I will investigate behavioral change. Behavioral broadly relates to anything people do, or as Odgen Lindsley defined it so nicely with his “dead man test”: if a dead man can do it, it is not behavior.

My colleague Kathy Miller has pointed out in her most recent blog, which guides this conversation, that change has a lot to do with loving the mess we are in. She talks about why change is difficult in organizations and appeals to the need for courage. She points out that large scale change is disruptive and can negatively impact our sense of equilibrium. She suggests that building a high tolerance for ambiguity is important to be able to handle change. I agree entirely and want to dig deeper into this important subject, about which I am preparing to write a book.

Change at the personal level has much to do with what Eastern philosophers and self-help gurus call changing yourself. The mantra here is Mahatma Gandhi’s “be the change you want to see in the world”. Gandhi was interested in changing the world and, much in line with Eastern philosophy, suggested that any change can only occur if it starts within oneself. My personal experience is that I can change myself all I want; the world is still going to pot. There’s got to be an additional lever for change or we will never get anywhere. What I am saying is: yes, let us find ways to change ourselves, to reflect on our blind spots, to train new behavior, absolutely. Yet, let us also recognize the limitation of this.

Change at the organizational level has been studied in great detail and there are a number of readily available “recipes” available for those who want to become change agents. Aubrey Daniels and Jon Bailey outline in their well-respected fifth edition of Performance Management: Changing behavior that drives organizational effectiveness the importance of providing feedback as an important lever for change. They call levers “reinforcers” suggesting that feedback can help behavior change in a positive direction, thus functioning as a reinforcer. Clearly, there are additional reinforcers besides feedback; for example, compensation is a well-recognized and often effective reinforcer. The advantage of a traditional organizational environment is that there is a power hierarchy that enables those in power to influence those with less power. It allows the use of carrots and sticks, and there is much literature about when and how to use both of these to create change. There is less discussion about creating change in newer and more modern organizational environments, such as a Holacracy, which I am experiencing within my own organization. If power is indeed distributed and people self-organize, sticks and carrots not only lose their power, they simply don’t have a place anymore. I am curious to find out more about how to create change in such new settings.

Change at the societal level implies yet a different spectrum of methods and approaches. Here we are more directly trying to understand how we can change others. And this without the convenient levers we have available when we have some power or pressure points on those we want to change. I am really intrigued by this. The recent climate change debate in the U.S. has shown that simply throwing more information at those so-called climate change deniers does not change anything. The most ardent deniers are as informed as the most ardent supporters. They simply access different information and use information sources they trust to reinforce their beliefs. So how do we “educate” those with beliefs we consider dangerous for our democracy and well-being? In the current electoral environment, I trust this is a worthy and urgent question. Timothy Wilson (author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change) concludes that in order to change the behavior of others, we must change their self-perception; and in order to change self-perception we must change how they act. He uses the example of a study that attempted to reduce teen pregnancy by involving young girls in community activities, thus enabling them to feel more engaged and responsible than before, and consequently altering their self-perception. And indeed, not only did teen pregnancies drop, but participants’ school grades also improved. What does this mean for creating other types of societal change? I believe the resulting question is: how can we create experiences and activities that will change the self-perception of those feeling anger and disappointment with the current establishment as a result of their own reality. How does one do that? I don’t have the answer yet but, more importantly, I have the feeling that I might have just found the right question!

I welcome comments, remarks and suggestions, and look forward to an active and engaged discussion on this topic, which will be the focus of my energy in the coming months.