Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lasting change

In 2008 Obama campaigned with the slogan "Change We Can Believe In!" Four years later this slogan evokes the question what kind of change has actually taken place in the US since 2008. President Obama’s opponents claim in the current campaign that they are going to bring about “real change,” since Obama has failed to make the "hope for” change happen. Clearly perceptions differ regarding kinds of change, and especially the expectations about how quickly and fundamentally such change should take place.

In an evolutionary perspective, continuous gradual change is often compared to discontinuous and fundamental change. One can assume that those who voted for Obama expected quick and fundamental change during his first term of office, especially in the economy, which was extremely weak at the time of his election because of the financial crisis. In the present campaign job creation is the dominant issue. But precisely in this area it hasn’t been possible for Obama to achieve fundamental change, at the most some gradual changes.

Observation of strategic changes in firms provide findings that explain why fundamental change is often impeded: One important explanation is that over time successful firms tend to reinforce their values and norms with strong myths and legends so that adapting to changing conditions becomes difficult. Sometimes organizational routines are created; management resorts to this especially in uncertain situations. Thus, uncertainty can be reduced and anxiety can be controlled by routine actions; however, this prevents fundamental change.

The successful development of firms, and growing economic prosperity over decades in a Western context, is an example of a successful development that has lead to inertia. The successful development in the past has become the main barrier for fundamental adaption in the future: despite increasing criticism of neoliberal economic systems, necessary changes have not taken place. When in recent years, new challenges arose in the form of social expectations, especially as a result of corporate scandals and the financial crisis, leaders of firms and of political organizations mostly tended to rely on the deep structures that had been successful in the past. Fundamental adaptation has so far not been able to take place.

Evolutionary research has also shown that sometimes systems destroy themselves by applying their behavioral principles in an exaggerated manner. Excessive short-term shareholder-value thinking, for example, can prevent necessary adaptations and lead capitalism to destroy itself. This primarily, quantitative understanding of welfare is now criticized even by such leading economists as Joseph Stiglitz and Amaryta Sen. Analogous developments can also manifest themselves in other areas of society.

Gradual change consists of continual change in small steps. In this sense Obama and his team have effected, for example, that now in the US access to health care for everybody is being discussed and first measures are being taken. We have been able to observe similar continuous changes in our longitudinal case studies in firms (see Sachs S., Rühli E., Stakeholders Matter, 2011). As an example, since the early seventies there has been a continuous increase in the consideration of an ever-broader cast of stakeholders by firms. New kinds of tools (e.g. stakeholder mapping), departments (e.g. public affairs) and processes (e.g. stakeholder engagement) have been developed. Corporations have started to publish sustainability reports and signed standards (e.g. Global Compact) and founded roundtables (e.g. corporation 20/20).

As in firms, societal developments have taken place in the US, even if not to the hoped for extent and with the anticipated speed. More importantly it seems to me, we should concentrate on the events and stories that show the continual transformation processes to improve the quality of human life, rather than to bemoan the lack of fundamental change that has taken place. By no means should the partial lack of change be used as an excuse to go back to business as usual. In German we have the saying: “Good things come to those who wait.” Therefore I suggest “lasting change” for Obama’s 2012 campaign slogan.

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