The anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s phrase “the difference that makes a difference” has a powerful and intuitive resonance.
He was talking about how a ‘difference’ can represent information that helps us see a situation from a different angle.
This can reveal new possibilities for understanding or acting. Bateson’s idea draws attention to how in a complex system, a small change or shift can have a ripple effect, bringing about other shifts and changes.
Even subtle differences or changes can lead to profound shifts.
The phrase “the difference that makes a difference”, for me at least, is analogous with the practice of organisation consulting.
This idea has been present for me in several consulting assignments in recent months; where I’ve found myself wondering how we ended up here again.
In each case, a client group speaks about wanting to bring about change within the system in some way, shape or form.
At the same time, I see ways in which their attempts to initiate change appear to be re-enacting a habitual pattern (which is connected to the change they wish to bring about).
In one client system, there is a desire for more adult-adult relationships whereby individuals take responsibility for providing feedback and challenging each other.
And yet several attempts to bring about change have a subtle parental injunction: “let’s get leaders to tell staff how we expect them to behave”.
With another client, there is a desire to develop a strategy but “for us to do this differently this time”. Yet those leading the process are drawn back into established action-oriented routines leaning towards a logical and ordered process.
This feels at odds with their stated aims to do something different.
In both cases, considerable effort, time and resources could be expended in an attempt to change, yet result in familiar patterns rather than different outcomes.
This is just the way things are with human systems.
It’s our nature to create patterns and replicate them. We are the patterns and these patterns connect us.
We shouldn’t be too damning of ourselves when we find ourselves back where we started.
We can however be curious, interested and open to learning about what’s happening.
As consultants, we may see some of these patterns and find ourselves re-enacting others. It can feel like a risk to draw attention to or step out of a pattern.
We might help a client group to slow down to notice and reflect on the patterns they see and experience.
Together, we may be able to discern a ‘difference’ or a new possibility. Whether this difference will make a difference however is simply not possible to know in advance.
It’s revealed through what happens next.
If you notice that ‘here we go again’ feeling – perhaps pause and ask yourself and those around you what you notice (and what you no longer notice).
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