Occasionally I am asked to either review grant proposals or to comment on symposia and the like that deal with the future of various enterprises. Perhaps the most common prefix I encounter in these endeavors is “re-“. And especially used in the words “rethink” and “reinvent.” I have found this to be particularly true in higher education, but these treacherous words can be found in any organization that is looking for innovation or a conversion event of some sort. My experience is that the verb being sought after in such instances is not “re-“ anything. It is “change.”
Rethinking and Reinventing can be insidious traps. They too often assume that the same teams working inside the same boxes can produce something new. What usually happens is that we find the same pieces in the same box, just reorganized. There is a great commercial that shows how mattress companies “rethink” mattress composition on a regular basis. It explains that mattresses are essentially composed of several layers of material. Reinvention then consists of reordering these layers and then increasing the price based on the reinvention. Voila!
In my experience, the most basic error is assuming that we can “re-think” with the same group of participants who got us where we are in the first place. This group, first of all, is invested in the status quo. Second, their thinking is clouded by the past. They may be defensive about the present state of things, or even resist real change; instead they may propose modest modifications to what exists, rather than large or even wholesale change.
The point here is that it is difficult to implement any change if we rely exclusively n the same group who got us here in the first place. Again I turn to higher education as a prime example. At every level, from local to state to federal, symposia and conferences on the need for change are populated by the usual suspects who created and are invested in the status quo. Not surprisingly, very little progress has been made in several decades.
Don’t get me wrong. The old guard needs to have input to the process of change, to be sure. But other models, infused with diverse approaches and perspectives, also need to be considered in the process. For any process, organizational structure, or business model, there are multiple frameworks that can inform and guide new thinking. What works in a seemingly foreign environment may in fact have great value in solving your own problems.
So don’t REthink. THINK. Rethinking is done in the box. Get out. Or at least peer over the edge. That’s where real change is waiting.