Protagonist rule #7: Change your mind

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I worked as a young professor in the 1990s, one of my main research areas was software architecture. The prevalent view at the time was that the architecture of a software system was virtually immutable once you had committed to it and consequently, you had to be very careful during the initial design phase. Hence, we had architecture design and assessment methods that tried to ensure that a system had the right architecture before the start of large-scale development. I even wrote a whole book on the topic and was wholeheartedly convinced of the correctness of my views and those of the community.

Then Agile came along and it became obvious that the architecture of a system needs to evolve just like everything else about the system. So, we developed approaches for architecture refactoring and technical debt management. However, I had to change my mind about the role of architecture in software systems.

I went through the same process with software platforms. Initially, platforms and other approaches to software reuse focused on efficiency improvement. How do we build reusable assets so that we can build new products and offerings as cheaply as possible? Over time, I came to realize that platforms can become a huge problem for companies: they slow things down and make it hard to build what needs to be built. So, these days, I still recommend platforms to companies but suggest focusing on speed rather than efficiency. Platforms should be optimized for allowing companies to move faster, not more efficiently.

On the personal front, I was raised as a devout Calvinist Christian but experienced serious cognitive dissonance with that approach to religion in my 20s and 30s. This required me to fundamentally revise my view on and approach to religion and spirituality. Where I landed isn’t for this post, but suffice it to say that organized religion isn’t for me anymore. But I also feel that the almost complete ignoring of spirituality in Western society isn’t the right approach either as it has led to a crisis of purpose and meaning with nihilism as a result.

The main point I’m trying to make is that I’ve changed my mind on pretty big topics – just like everyone reading this has. Especially when you become more of a senior in the organization you’re part of, this can become problematic. You tend to be respected for sharing your opinion, which is supposed to be based on experience and a competent interpretation of the current state of the product, the company and the world. Once having gone ‘on record’ concerning a topic, it becomes very hard to change your position as it easily comes with a perceived loss of face.

One industry where changing your mind is a critical capability is venture capital. Here, partners in a fund need to predict where the world is going and invest accordingly, but typically based on very limited, sparse data. It’s very easy to create a narrative of why the company being considered for investment is going to be a complete failure. It’s very hard to create a believable narrative around why it’s going to be a rocket – yet, this is what’s required for a positive investment decision. A useful principle here is “strong opinions, loosely held,” meaning that you hold opinions and voice them loudly but are always open to changing your mind.

From a personal perspective, we can’t grow without changing our minds. Typically, it’s our worldview that’s holding us back in our development and the only way to progress is to change it.

The process of changing our minds goes through three stages. First, there’s the cognitive dissonance between our view of the world and the data from reality. We have the choice to try to explain away the difference to avoid changing or to investigate the nature of the mismatch.

Once the dissonance becomes unbearable, we get to stage two where we let go of our old beliefs. This is extremely uncomfortable as we’re entering chaos. Our belief systems give us a stable basis to operate from and letting go of that can easily make us feel like we’re out of control and simply whipped around by external forces.

Being pattern-matching machines, however, we often start to develop a new belief system and we enter stage three where we have a new basis to operate from that’s more aligned with reality and often is more complex and involved. Once we’ve created an intuition about the new way to view reality and can convey it to ourselves and others, we’ve arrived at a new, better place that can serve us for a while longer.

Of course, not only do individuals have to change their minds; organizations have to as well. Many organizations (as well as individuals) get stuck in old belief systems as there’s no systematic way of evolving the commonly held understanding. These companies typically get disrupted as their operating model no longer aligns with the world in which they operate. Customers feel that the business is stuck in the past and tend to vote with their feet and move elsewhere.

In the end, every company changes, but bad ones change too late to avoid going out of business. Good companies change when the effects of the outdated belief system are making themselves felt. Great companies proactively change their belief system and evolve when everything is going great.

In an earlier post, I talked about questioning ourselves. The main reason for doing that is so that we change our minds when it’s necessary. Especially for senior leaders, it’s tempting to build an illusionary world around you that you keep going by surrounding yourself with yes-sayers. But this is the worst way of serving the company. Instead, allow yourself to change your mind and share why with others. As William James said, if you can change your mind, you can change your life.

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