The cosmic egg of change

2007

The concept of the "cosmic egg" emerged during the 1930s from a perceived need to reconcile Edwin Hubble's (the guy they named the telescope after) observation of an expanding universe – something also predicted by Einstein's theory of general relativity - with the notion that the universe must be eternally old.

The question it sought to answer was "you can't have something from nothing but where did the something come from?"

The answer is "from the egg!" or, more precisely, that billions of years ago, the entire mass of the entire universe was squeezed into a volume about thirty times the size of the sun. (That's taking size zero – think Oprah wearing posh spice's skinny, skinny jeans – to the cosmic level).

Then the egg exploded (the Big Bang) whereupon someone shouted "you've been egged" and things started to get "leary" with baseball bats and shopping trolleys being wrapped around heads. Or not.

Probably not – because the aforementioned "heads" needed the aforementioned "billions of years" to evolve and be in any position to lose themselves in an alcohol-fuelled, supermarket-vehicle-assisted, fisticuffs.

But the main point remains. Everything that exists came from somewhere – only the stuff that it is made from always existed. It's the ultimate chicken and egg puzzler, one that has played a part every meta-physical, physical, scientific, and theological story about the way we got here.

Something – often God – has to be eternal in order to get something cooking in the kitchen or baking in the kiln.

Which leads me to the second, less fundamental, but perhaps more job-related, part of this brief missive. Where's the chicken and the egg in the "all-change-next-stop-is-down-sizing" management malarkey?

Take a quick look and you will find that change management models, frameworks, four steps, seven steps, and so on, don't tend to worry about what happened before. They start as though everything just "was".

Then the chicken-executive-officer (CEO) appears and declares "let there be omelettes" and "just like that" they are on the table. God, I wish I had a wife like that... (yeah I know, but it made Mrs Mckeown laugh).

And yet all the evidence is that change is inextricably linked to the past. Change is not overcoming inertia as much as it is redirecting, guiding, tweaking what already is and what has already happened. We must believe that we can make choices and that those choices can alter the future. However, our choices are limited by the past, the present, and the actions of others and the future is bigger than our individual choices. We are finite. It is infinite. We are bounded. It is limitless.

Let's take, for example, Michael Dell when he emailed the whole company (read the whole email here) after Dell's share price halved in two years and HP overtook them as the world's largest computer manufacturer despite losing a CEO and being embroiled in a secret operations to spy on board members.

He declared:

"It's time for a change [...] we have a new enemy: bureaucracy, which costs us money and slows us down. We created it, we subjected our people to it and we have to fix it! [..] so think about what is best for Dell. Thanks for your many sacrifices but recent results have been disappointing and unacceptable."

What is wrong with this picture? Well - where did the bad results come from? Which chickens laid the bureaucracy eggs? Who made the decisions to spend too much?

Certainly not the people he is sending this email to because they don't have that kind of authority. And what's in it for the "awesome people" who work for Dell? To simply avoid getting fired? Who the hell wants to just wear out one's life doing what is best for Dell?

This kind of ducking, diving, and ignoring the past means that by the time he lists a whole bunch of things that "we will do" to turn things around (without taking responsibility or apportioning blame anywhere it belongs), the impression is left that "this is your mess, clear it up".

Yet someone was in charge during this period (Kevin Rollins) and someone was missing from duty (Michael Dell), which is hardly likely to encourage people to commit to working any harder.

And working harder won't make things better if effort wasn't the original problem, will it?

The (faintly nauseating) serenity prayer is useful here: "grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference".

Applying this same mantra to Dell, he would be well advised to acknowledge what he cannot change (the past), change what he can (the conditions that prevent the purposefulness of the majority of people), and work with the difference. Find ways of playing with what they have to create more of what everyone wants anyway. Energy attracted rather than diverted.

Meryl Streep's character in the movie Adaptation says that "change is not a choice". But she probably meant "not to change is not a choice" because there is still a smidgin of choice in the nature of some of the change. Nevertheless, what is certain is that we are going to die. We are going to decay (before and after death). We will be sad. We will be abandoned and disappointed.

It is (in my oh so very humble opinion) what comes in and around the inescapable that is what is worth making the effort for. And it is also the stuff that change (or improvements) in organizations is made of.

In other words, change is the (occasionally) skilful redirecting, renewing, and reconnecting of stuff (like time, money, things, jokes, knowledge, hopes, passion, and dreams) into something better for us, for someone, even for everyone. Something Mr, Mrs, & Ms CEO could take to heart.

So while you can't fight fate, you can play with it.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.

Older Comments

Don't often add comments (its not really a conversation is it?) but this is wonderful stuff. Keep writing!

Howard Adam Detroit

Funnily (or sadly) enough, I have tended to follow the training I received at Business School for change management projects and they don't talk about the past at all - zilch. We just arrive, create a set of tasks in project management software and drive ahead... I've done the same as a consultant and an executive - it was real master of the universe stuff which may explain why things so rarely went smoothly ;) Thanks for the article.

Michael Davis Kansas