The role of past patterns in discontinuous change

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —September 29, 2006
Filed in Insight

Dave Snowden has written an excellent post warning of the dangers of simply looking at the past and attempting to apply, without adaptation, what happened then to what is happening now. After reading Dave’s post jumped on a plane to Sydney and as I was rushing out the door grabbed Charles Handy’s Age of Unreason from my friend’s bookshelf for some in-flight reading. Published in 1989, Handy’s words are prophetic and reinforce Dave’s message as Handy argues that the nature of change has morphed in the last 30 years from incremental change, where the past was a good indicator of the future, to discontinuous change, where the future is much less certain.

Of course we do learn from history (Dave makes this clear in his post) but it’s how we apply this learning that matters. I remember in Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation (1964) how he talked about creativity being like being faced with a canyon you wish to cross. Your first step it to find a bridge. You might find a bridge that nearly fits but then some extra effort is required to completely span the gap. These ‘bridges’ are our patterns which we develop through experience or by hearing stories about other people’s adventures. While we are good at recalling past patterns we must remain mindful of the need to reshape these patterns according to the context and needs of the issue at hand.

This view of decision making in a world of discontinuous change suggests two capabilities each and everyone should actively develop:

  • seek out opportunities for new and diverse experiences or seek out people or accounts of new and diverse experiences – build your pattern repertoire
  • learn ways to adapt bridges. As deBono says, “creativity thinking is a skill and can be taught.” Many of his techniques are applicable here.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. ken says:

    Well, we could start with modern complexity science, the peaks of the well adapted fitness landscape, it’s farther to fall if we’ve climbed up, and easier (less risky) for the newbies to explore and climb new peaks higher than our own, a jump across the discontinuity being risky (disruptive technology and all that)
    But, as usual, your post evokes much more in my poor brain, making connections…
    Bridges can cross a gap, and also cross a flowing river which, for me, evokes deBono talking of self-organising patterns flowing down a mountain, the raindrop randomly choosing a course and subsequent drops form a free flowing channel. De Bono, writing in the last century, seems ahead of his time, IMHO.
    That, in turn, evokes even older thoughts, from the century before. Emily Dickinson, locked up in her bedroom, seems to have anticipated even de Bono with her gloriously simple…
    The Brain, within its Groove
    Runs evenly – and true –
    Gray matter is great at learning, discovering new patterns, operating without thinking, even though, she notes again, that it has so much potential (if we can jump out of our comfortable grooves)..
    The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
    For – put them side by side –
    The one the other will contain
    With ease – and You – beside –
    For me, that fries my brain, that she could come up with this stuff (even “dwelling in possibilities” while Riemann was still breaking free of Euclidean and Cartesian space). We could even steal her little bee, buzzing to the flower, for some cross-fertilisation and co-evolution (what-if we didn’t need bridges, what if they came to us, like the tags we can subscribe to with RSS on delicious et al 🙂
    Does it go even further back? When we think of the Buddhist awareness (what a cool word that is) and letting go of delusional attachments (cough, cause and effect, cough, matrix diagrams)
    Nothing new under the sun? Am I reading too much into all this. Thanks as always 🙂

  2. Dave says:

    Discontinuous change asks us to take a risk, us as in those who sell the stuff. The question we have to ask is “can we teach some small portion of the world to sing with us.” Then, we ask one person to take a risk on us. And, another, until a lot of people are singing with us. The change is no longer discontinuous by then.
    Can we teach? Can they learn? Those are the questions you ask in the absence of data, and data is absent in the discontinuous.
    If we are on the other side of the sale, being sold to, then we have to ask “can I trust these people,” “can I learn this stuff,” and “can I apply this stuff to my work.”
    Sure the world is changing all the time. But, we change with only one chunk of focus at a time. Most of the change can be ignored until you need exactly one of those changes. By then, it is easier to learn.
    Too much is made of change. What if change stopped? How would we adjust? What if we went back into our mythic past expecting it to live up to the myth? Not chaning is not easier.
    Too much is made of change. I heard from a programmer who didn’t like my formalist system of documenting decisions towards realization. He claimed that requirements volitility would make the formalism untenable. So I looked into requirements volitility and found that it was the political process of generating the requirements that caused requirements volitility, not change itself. No, they were arguing about the change, and constantly changing their minds, their aggreements, their positions. It was the requirements elicitation process, so why not fix it?
    Because fixing it would cause IT to focus on something it isn’t good at–culture. Accounting works, because it is culturally insensitive. IT doesn’t work when the goal is developer efficency over operational efficency and the content is cross functional. Developer efficeny passed away as a goal with outsourcing, technological improvements, and development standards that lowered training costs and created a glut of skilled programmers, which subsequently had to be laid off. Consider code to be free, and then figure out how to make operational effectiveness the core metric. Then, program for individuals and functional units. Stop with the cross functional. And, suddently, their won’t be as much change.
    We have a limited amount of psychological bandwidth that we use to focus on the world. That limit controls how much risk we can take, how much we know at a given moment, how fast we learn, and how much change is just enough. We decide how much the world is changing.

  3. andrew campbell says:

    Nice piece. And Ken, do you have a web site -?

  4. Driving in India

    Came across this YouTube video, Driving in India. Shawn of Anecdoteputs it well, it's really a good

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