Containers and Myths

Before I talk about change-making, I feel that there is a very strong need to articulate the assumptions that exist in our society and organizations. All change-making happens in the container, and we ought to think about what’s in the container before thinking about changing the content, or break the container altogether. Since people will always be in some sort of container (institutions and organizations), I’m going to think about what’s in the container – the assumptions and ideas that cause everything else to work. (I am using metaphors very loosely here, apologies.)

What are the prevailing assumptions today in most of our organisations? With these articulations of assumptions, I am not yet imposing value judgments on them – but when I do, I try to defend them.

One is that certainty is possible.

Two is that a lot of rewards are based on a zero-sum vision of the world.

Three is that rational thought is the only mode of cognition there is.

These three assumptions form the the bases of the world we live today, at least in the organization context. Working lives in bureaucracies start and end with these three myths. I call them myths because they are the building blocks of all the stories we tell one another at work. As the charisma and powers of heroes fuel the stories in older times, so in present day, certainty, zero-sumness and rational thought are the building blocks of the stories of our time.

Certainty is possible
There are people out there who think that there exists only “one correct answer”, or who think that there is only one vision of the world. They dismiss all other possibilities except their own.

That’s not true. Yet people and organizations strive to attain greater certainty. A whole industry – Intelligence – in both economic and security domains suggest that people pursue certainties in their environment. These are noble pursuits but ultimately unhelpful given that the real world is much more contested. Even if it’s desired, Objective Truth-finding would have to go together with the ability to deal with multiple truths.

Certainty is not possible – there will never be enough information to find out how an outcome will be; there is never enough time to go through all of that information to decide in time. Living with uncertainty is the only way there is.

Rewards are zero-sum
Is the gain for someone at work necessarily a loss for another person? If the rewards are limited, and if there can only be one winner, then the answer has to be, “yes”. Then again, if people are competing for different rewards, then the answer is, “no”. Is there a right answer to all the problems an organization has to solve? Certainly no. In an ideal world, people get to define themselves and establish unique roles for how they want to contribute to teams. But then, the cruel realities of poor HR policies can get in the way, and de-motivate people from the best of themselves.

If societies are driven to think that rewards are limited, and not everyone can win, perhaps the outcome is an individualistic society. When people can come together that the benefit of one adds to the benefit of others, then perhaps we can have people adding to one another.

Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of cognition
Defining “rational thought” is tricky. What I’m trying to get to here is the logic of thinking that suggests that all problems can be solved, and that optimal solutions are possible for most situations. That by following a linear train of thought, one can arrive at most answers. While this is true in many cases, there are also classes of problems where solutions cannot be arrived via deductive means. There certainly are very strong resonances with “Certainty is possible”.

The other neglected consequence is that everyone thinks that they are the most rational people, and that everyone else is irrational. Therefore, people should come round to my side of the argument, and all other perspectives are wrong. This extreme is most evident in authoritarian leaders who dismiss the opinions of others.

How are these three maxims related to change-making? I suggest that these three maxims are the way the world works – from a psychological, and epistemological point of view. These views are still dominant, and undergird the way how our education, economy and society turn. Understanding that they are the myths of our time is crucial in thinking about how change can proceed.

In the next post, I want to talk about “indicators”, and how the idea of “indicators” is very central to the three qualities mentioned here.

Made slight edits in the sentence on Intelligence.



  1. Doug O

    thanks for part 2. I think approaching this from a perspective of mental models/assumptions is wise i am wondering how prevalent these assumptions are. I am hoping they are not, but guessing they are widespread and in the process of shifting. what do you think?.

    • JF

      Hey Doug,

      Thanks for this. I tend to think that they are very deep assumptions that are intrinsically linked to what organizations do. I’m speculating here that organizations want to “do” things – in the sense that the processes of internal thinking lead to some form of action. Reducing uncertainty and emphasizing rationality are the ways for how organizations reduce the costs of communication, so that nothing gets mis-interpreted. However, rationality need not be the only thing that motivates the thinking of people, and uncertainty can just be a matter of tolerance or acceptance.

      The assumption for zero-sumness is admittedly the most out of place among the three. Zero-Sumness is most evident in thinking about the considerations behind why politicking happens within the organization. The belief of zero-sumness means that there is no clear incentive for people to cooperate with one another, after all, the gain of someone else is going to be my loss. Zero-Sumness is also the reason for principal-agent problems – when the goals of the agent (the subordinate) are sometimes not aligned at all with the goals of the principal (the superior, most clearly seen when they are many layers up).

      I don’t see these assumptions going away anytime soon, and that’s also a speculation, because I don’t see any clear cultural motivations and incentives that are aligned for making people think and act in non-zero-sum ways.

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