No, it isn’t “just the same as…”

18 04 2011

Some phrases stay with you a lifetime; Merrick L. Jones was supervising my Masters Dissertation at the Graduate School of Business at NTU (now Charles Darwin) years ago, when I came across one of his articles on development in which he said something to the effect that “one hears people confront a novel situation so often by saying, ‘Oh, that is just the same as…’ that I take this to be a normal human coping mechanism.”

In other words, many of us, when faced with novelty, aim to reduce it to ‘the familiar’ as fast as possible. The objective of course is that once it is reduced to ‘the familiar’, it can be dismissed. At heart this seems to be a change avoidance routine.

Not, of course, to suggest that novelty and change should always be embraced uncritically. On the one hand, denial (in the face of real novelty) often leads to being caught unprepared; but simply embracing novelty (in the absence of any known bearings) can lead to paralysis. If everything has changed and nothing familiar, then who can even begin to respond?

So the point of Merrick’s comment, or at least as I received it, is to learn to catch yourself playing this novelty-denying card and to think twice. Better to say “this appears to be something new; we had better try to work out what is genuinely new and what only seems novel, in order to understand the better how to process this and respond to the situation.” It is about preserving the challenge of the new while leveraging like mad, everything we already know.

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