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NOTE: This one for Today’s Chiropractic Lifestyle is what we in the newspaper game used to call a “think piece.” When I accepted the assignment to do an article about Integrative Change, I knew it was a chance to apply my interest in the thinking of so-called social action scientists like William Isaacs, Peter Senge and Otto Scharmer. Yet I had no idea how to translate such a broad and nebulous topic as “change” into anything meaningful. Then I remembered Dances with Wolves and developed the flow around the symbolism drawn from that fine historical movie. This article is probably too long for some tastes (as is the movie), but I like to believe it offers several insights into serious issues for those able to hang with it. Let me know if it makes you think.

‘It is the trail of a true human being… and it is good to see.’

We All Need Proficiency in Integrative Change

By Randy Heuston
Special Assistant to the President
Life University

Toward the end of Kevin Costner’s epic film Dances with Wolves, the old Sioux chief Ten Bears asks Lt. John Dunbar about the white men. Showing a conquistador’s helmet from the time of his grandfather’s grandfather, Ten Bears relates how later the Mexicans and then the Texans came and “took without asking,” and agrees more white men will surely come. With the U.S. cavalry riding through the snow to destroy the Sioux village, Ten Bears has Dunbar take time to smoke a peace pipe. When the cavalry descends, the village has vanished, camp fires still warm. The epilogue rolls: 

Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, the buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority…. The great horse culture of the plains was gone, and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.

Worlds collide and one’s destroyed. The lesson is clear. Adapt or die.

In spite of that grim history, though, the tragedy of Dances with Wolves offers a whisper of hope. Dunbar himself integrates his life with the ways of the Sioux and pledges to tell what he has learned “to those who will listen.” Early in the movie he had offered himself as a sacrificial victim in the savage U.S. Civil War where neither officers nor infantrymen knew the answer to “What is going on here?” But later with the Sioux, Dunbar finds clarity about values worth fighting for, including the mandate to live in harmony with the natural world. 

This hopeful message is about our chances to integrate change on the basis of fundamental human values. As his Sioux friend Kicking Bird observes, Dunbar is on, “of all the trails in life, the one that matters most, the trail of a true human being… and it is good to see.”

This is the purpose, too, of the core proficiency that Life University in Marietta, Georgia, calls “Integrative Change.” Life is teaching its students to recognize “what is going on here” and not only avoid being crushed by change but even take advantage of it. As with Dunbar’s friendship with the Sioux, the skills required include letting curiosity overcome fear, abiding discomfort until clarity appears, trusting in our God-given nature despite cultural, historical or other barriers, and fighting both for what is worth preserving and for rich opportunities on our trail toward true humanity. Further, the responsibility of Life graduates will be to take what they have learned “to those who will listen.”

Actually, we hardly have the option not to learn such skills. Few people alive today would deny that change is riding ominously toward us through the snow and that we must change ourselves or else. In his best-selling book Leading the Revolution, Gary Hamel observed a few years ago:

And now, with the Internet set to connect virtually everyone and everything, the number of combinational possibilities is set to soar…. The forces of change and innovation are no longer loping along. They are now a breathless, rampaging horde, trampling underfoot all who would pause for a backward glance. Put simply, we are on the verge of a phase shift where economic evolution becomes perpetual revolution…. It was a world of punctuated equilibrium, where change was episodic. Today we live in a world that is all punctuation and no equilibrium. To thrive in this new age, every company and every individual will have to become as nimble as change itself.

Truly, invasive change today is riding at warp speed compared to Ten Bears’ time—“all punctuation and no equilibrium”—and its effect is often to “take without asking.” As Einstein said about technology, “Technological change is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.” In a sense, all of us are Sioux. Adapt or die. Globalization and other economic dynamics trample Fortune 500 companies into bankruptcy, their campfires still warm. The world’s geometrically growing population poses enormous threats to food supplies, health care and education. Accelerating extinction of animal species threatens destruction of ecological balance and the quality of human life. Social values of our parents’ day get swept away, and what moral chaos will tomorrow bring? As the Hamel quotation concludes, the mandate for “nimbleness” applies to individuals as well as institutions.

But, more specifically, what are the skills needed, and how are they learned and applied?

A major thrust of the highest education in this time of maniacal change is teaching how to see the big picture, promoting understanding beyond technical skills to do a job; after all, both those skills and the job itself may be obsolete in a matter of months. Academic and business leaders label this ability to see connections beyond narrow limits of tasks and circumstances as “systems thinking.” Systems thinking urges us to take a holistic approach, realizing every tip we see has an iceberg beneath, every tail we tug has an elephant attached. Systems thinking makes us wary of snap judgments and short-term fixes that only exacerbate long-term problems.

Here’s a simple illustration. You’re a chiropractor with a small staff, and your office manager says new billing software will simplify everything she does and the Medicare coding feature is deliciously user friendly. “Come on, Doc, we can afford it.”

Hold on! Do you really know the facts?

For one thing, computer-savvy business types caution that buying software when it’s first released is often unwise, especially if your business will be significantly dependent on it; bugs only get stepped on in later iterations. No matter how many bells and whistles, the software isn’t much good if precious patient data goes into cyberblivion. Perhaps you should wait for version 3.0 rather than let the manufacturer use you as a beta test.  

What about the learning curve for your office manager? Do you really need all the firepower this product offers, and, even if you do, how long will it take her to get up to speed? What other work will be shoved aside in the meantime? When she takes her two-week vacation, who keeps things running? Have you built in time for training the backup person?

Although information formerly gathered from patients at the counter may now be automatic, will your business suffer from less face-to-face contact? Since when is business efficiency the only driver in chiropractic success?

“Hey, Doc, did you see the article on Medicare coding in the latest issue of Dynamic Chiropractic? Something about a bill in Congress that may restructure Medicare compensation altogether.” Surprise! This tail may have a white elephant attached.

So, rather than act in haste and repent in leisure, you pull all the factors into a coherent picture. Your action plan includes budget, staff morale, technology, security, logistics, patient communications, regulatory and other considerations. As you fit the pieces into a whole, you come to a profound understanding of exactly what outcome you need and what process gets you there. You better understand both your internal and your external environments. You begin to see options not apparent before. You may even get innovative. You have become, at least where office software is concerned, a systems thinker.

Well, you say, isn’t there danger of analysis paralysis? Sure, expect delay until you start to think differently from your old narrow focus. But once you learn to analyze all the interconnections and impacts, it becomes second nature. You end up saving time because you’ve shed your former “three-steps-forward-one-step-back” approach to life.

The foregoing illustrates skills you can master personally. But what about working with an organization where you aren’t the sole decision-maker—perhaps your professional association or your church or your city council? Lt. Dunbar integrated himself into the tribe, but what about the larger interaction of tribes and cultures? The skills here must be ramped up to create what is called a “learning organization,” meaning one that integrates change with a minimum of disruption.

Fully developing a true learning organization is a monster challenge because personally and collectively we’ve been programmed from infancy to think in ways that destroy openness and readiness to change. For example, business guru W. Edwards Deming believed that typical business management needs a total overhaul.

Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people. People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-respect, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning. The forces of destruction begin with toddlers…. Management by Objectives, quotas, incentive pay, business plans, put together separately, division by division, cause further loss, unknown and unknowable.    

Peter Senge, who built on Deming’s work, notes that a learning organization requires three core capabilities, none of which comes easily. In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Senge describes: (1) fostering aspiration, which includes personal mastery and shared vision; (2) reflective conversation, including understanding mental models and practicing dialogue; and (3) understanding complexity, i.e., systems thinking.

Consider one of those capabilities—“dialogue,” a word taken from the Greek meaning “thinking together.” A good example is the Sioux council fire, where members would express themselves without fear of chastisement and learn from one another, making—in the best cases, at least—decisions in collective wisdom. As Senge notes:

Interestingly, the practice of dialogue has been preserved in many “primitive” cultures, such as that of the American Indian, but it has been almost completely lost to modern society. …(Dialogue differs from the more common “discussion,” which has its roots with “percussion” and “concussion,” literally a heaving of ideas back and forth in a winner-takes-all competition.)

William Isaacs, author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together and a speaker at Life Source, the professional seminar series sponsored by Life University, describes dialogue as “a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarization and into a greater common sense.”

Teaching Life University students integrative change includes helping them move beyond a competitive “heaving of ideas” to what Isaacs calls “ecology of thought” where they suspend strong opinions in order to be lifted “into a greater common sense.” Teaching and living this team-learning approach, Life University itself is becoming a true learning organization.

However, the Life curriculum focusing on integrative change involves more than teaching how to cope. It will help students make the world a better place. For example, some students will develop a plan to implement an improved health care model for their country of origin. Others will identify a needed change project in the community and write a plan to bring about the transformation. Since integrating significant change inevitably requires innovation, students will learn to think outside of their current paradigm. The thinking encouraged will soar beyond current challenges in the quest for future possibilities. In short, Life’s audacious effort is to equip its administration, faculty, staff, students and alumni to be aggressive about changing the world, not just letting it change them.

Life University is uniquely well positioned to lead higher education in teaching this and other core proficiencies. Life was founded as a chiropractic college and continues to be sustained by chiropractic’s vitalistic philosophy. This philosophy is entirely holistic, stressing health care in alignment with the self-healing, self-regulating nature of the human body. Applied to education, vitalistic thinking opens our minds to discover connections not immediately discernable, to address real causes rather than mere symptoms, and to cultivate patience and quiet reflection—in the spirit of the Sioux peace pipe—so that positive dynamics have time to work, often with seemingly miraculous results.
The big picture encompasses the totality of the natural world, and education that helps us cope with change references the interconnectedness of all things in nature, including ourselves. In Dances with Wolves the beauty, strength and complexity of nature are part of the plot, from Dunbar’s horse Cisco and the wolf Two Socks to the way the Native Americans show respect for the land, which Ten Bears says, “is all we have.” It comes as no surprise, then, that Life University also is creating a “green campus,” an appropriate setting for the dialogue that generates positive actions in harmony with the natural world.  

Nature is in constant change, and it knows how to adapt even to destructive forces. Polluted rivers, left alone for a time, can again flow clean and clear. Likewise in the management of human affairs, the proficiency of integrative change offers hope and practical skills so that we can deal with change not as something ugly to fear but, at least much of the time, as something beautiful to embrace.

In Senge’s words, this is “consistent with nature, human nature, and the nature of larger living systems; it is working together in ways that realize our highest aspirations; it is being the change we seek to create.”

Kicking Bird would say, “(It is) the trail of a true human being… and it is good to see.”







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