17th Century Change Management

I was recently reading a book on John Locke (1632-1704), a British philosopher considered by many to be the primary intellectual inspiration of Thomas Jefferson. I thought I’d share what he had to say about new ideas and achieving agreement because the parallels to modern change management are uncanny considering this was written over 300 years ago. The following is a summary of the ideas expressed in his “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” Book IV, Ch. 16, Section 4. The summary was published by Bertrand Russell in 1945.

In his chapter “Of Degrees of Assent” he says that the degree of assent we give to any proposition should depend upon the grounds of probability in its favor. After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions, without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth; and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenets presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of; it would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that any one should readily and obsequiously quit his own opinion, and embrace ours with blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another…

How can we expect that opinions thus settled (one’s own opinion) should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary? especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated (challenged). We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance, and endeavour to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs…

Lean and Six Sigma experts are promoters of change, thus one of our primary functions is to convince leaders, managers, etc. to adopt new ideas relative to how an enterprise should operate. It doesn’t appear this task is any easier now than it was 300 years ago but I think what Mr. Locke had to say in his treatise rings true: Don’t expect people to change just because you are convinced you know a better way. Figuring out how to convince others to change is the greatest challenge a Black Belt will face and success is often based more on an individuals ability to promote change rather than his or her technical prowess. Learn to be a relationship builder and you will create opportunities to apply your technical skills to achieve greater results than you could ever have imagined.

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