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Change Work January 2013

Follow me!

In Britain we're currently exercising ourselves with questions about whether we should leave the European Union or stay in.  Many people are saying that we need to "repatriate powers" to our own country, as if that means that those powers will return to ordinary people.  Experience suggests it's more likely that repatriation of powers means that the powerful people in Britain will become even more powerful.  In or out, the decision will now be made in a referendum some years in the future - so the argument is going to run and run.

While that's going on, there'll be plenty of opportunity to watch the players jostling for position.  And we might wonder how it happens that some people become so much more influential than others.  Because this occurs in all areas of human interaction, not just in politics.

Now, it's a "presupposition" of NLP that if one person can do something then anyone can learn to do it.  So our skills and abilities are essentially all learned rather than inherited (leaving aside major physical factors).  Compared with other species, most humans are born with the same potential for learning.  So what exactly is the learning that allows some to wield power and the rest of us to allow them to?

One possible explanation lies in "variety".

I've mentioned Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety before.  It comes from the field of cybernetics and asserts that the more complex a system becomes, the more complexity (or flexibilty) is required to regulate it.  And I've certainly observed many meetings where a few people are ahead of everyone else in understaning the implications of what's being discussed.  The others are stuck - trapped by the limitations of their own beliefs about how the world works.  They are unable to adapt to the new situation.

Those who "get" it tend to take the lead.  The course they want to take may or may not turn out to be a good one, but they emerge as leaders because they recognise the need to do something before the majority does.  They have adapted and are ready to move on.  Everyone else is still struggling to fit new facts into a model that's suddenly obsolete.

Now I'd argue that we all have "inherent" adaptability.  That's what allows us to learn so much so quickly as infants and what distinguishes us from other animals.  But if that's the case, then how do we account for the emergence of the differences I've just described?

Well I think it's possible that the level of adaptability we display as adults is itself learned. We start out with the ability to soak up information in great quantity and without discrimination.  Then, as our internal model of the world develops, we begin filtering: discarding or distorting what doesn't fit.  And we can do this to a surprising degree; most of us displaying a high threshold for the amount of information we have to modify or delete before we are forced to accept that our model is wrong.

So that would explain how most of us often get stuck and unable to process changing circumstances fast enough.  Which implies that the "natural" leaders have models that are much less rigid.  They are willing to modify their understanding more readily than most others are.

What can the poor, confused followers do about this?

Going back to the presupposition "anyone can learn anything", we should expect to be able to improve our flexibility by consciously practising it - until it becomes unconscious.

A useful exercise would be to sidestep the obstacle in your mind by using the "As if" frame: I may not believe this but what would I do if it were true?  That gives you permission to ignore the impossibility of what's being asked of you and to start creating possible solutions.

Alternatively, developing your flexibility might be as simple as catching yourself thinking, "That's not right" and changing it to, "Am I right?"

Because once you admit the possibility of being mistaken, you open the door to enlightenment.

And I'm definitely right about that!