Building a future past: a note to change managers.

September 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

Imagine how it will feel like to sit at your office desk tomorrow. Then memorize how it felt last time you sat there. These two mental processes are surprisingly similar.  One concerns a real event and the other one deals with a purely imaginary future. Between the process of perceiving reality and memorizing it, there is something that we have learned to call ‘time’. This same ‘time’ finds its place in our mental worlds when we plan our future. But within these delicate mental processes there hides an interesting creature, which is not well known, it is our imaginary past.

Forward and backward in time

Imagine, how it will feel like, the day after tomorrow to remember how it felt like to sit at your office desk the day before that. The day that we now call ‘tomorrow’ is in this exercise our ‘yesterday’ and they are both imaginary, but with a different direction of time. All this is pure imagination generated by the same mental imagery processes and allows us to fly in time, to any direction. Clearly, we can have an imaginary past in our imaginary future. Now the question is, how natural is this for us and is it something that is always linked with our ways of planning for our futures? If it is, then preparing for the future must actually mean also preparing for a new past. Could it be that this planned past is actually a significant factor in determining how we relate to a planned future and especially to change?

Of course it is not a surprise that we can imagine remembering something and imagine the time past as happened in these exercises. But it is astonishing that subjectively in these processes there is no difference between memorizing real time and mentally creating purely virtual time that can go forwards or backwards. Somehow it even feels that in our imagination the feeling of time is the same whether it goes forward or backward.

Past and future browser?

It is as if our memory system acted like a browser with the peculiar feature that it browses our future and the past by the same mechanisms. Why should this matter? I believe it is not only a theoretical phenomenon, but a real mental capacity that we all enjoy and which we have learned to use in preparing for our future and the new past.

These almost weird thoughts were triggered by a short exchange of ideas about change with Jari Kaivo-oja in FB, which reminded me of these peculiar cognitive phenomena. Our mind can deal with real and virtual materials in a very similar, if not identical way. Dreaming is totally different because then we cannot very much control what goes on in our mind. I have not followed the latest of the imagery and mental processing studies, but clearly there is a potential mind space to be studied these phenomena and our life outside the laboratory as well.

Preparing for a new past in change

Problems with introducing change are often linked with the ways people think of their future. Clever change management strategies try to find a way through or around the walls of resistance that people tend to have, especially in organizational settings. By trying to change the way people think about their future, managers and consultants hope to weaken the resistance or even creating energetic acceptance and commitment to change. But what if it is not the thinking about the future that is the problem, but the problem of what kind of a past they try to offer? This is very rarely explicitly expressed in change projects.

This may sound r-e-a-l-l-y theoretical, but think about a single example.   Imagine aiming at a higher position at your work or getting a new funding for your project. You know there is a way to do it by keeping your close colleague uninformed about the possibilities that you know of.  You have an opportunity to succeed but at a price of mistreating your colleague, perhaps even a friend. In planning and deciding what to do, it is not the future that is the problem for you it is the past in that future that you imagine you will create by these clever moves. Because of that imagined past you will think twice.

I believe that imagining a future past is a very strong and basic psychological mechanism that is activated in all change situations where our attitude towards change is materializing. The way we think about our possible futures and our imaginable pasts together are significant determinants of our relationship to a potential change. This is also why many of us want to leave their marks on the history even though the visible actions have the illusory nature of  ‘planning for the future’.

In change management studies it is not uncommon to talk about change resistance and change readiness and in both cases the focus is on the foreseeable future. But our real relationship to change is not only in what kind of a future is predicted to us but also what kind of a future past we are offered. A lesson to change agents is to think how to build the best achievable past. After all, our past is what we are.

Thank you Selim Rentola for the photo of my past future.

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