Cultural Maturity and Change

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

 

Like it or not, our world refuses to stand still. Between today’s ever accelerating rate of technological innovation, the increasingly transforming presence of globalization, and needed shifts in how we relate and how we understand, change has become increasingly inescapable.

Effectively making our way will require essential changes in our relationship to change. Most obviously, we must learn to be more comfortable in its change’s presence. We need also, if we are to make good choices, to better understand the particular changes that define our time. But the new requirements are deeper. We need, too, to better understand change itself, how it works—in ourselves, in relationships, in larger social systems, and more generally. Good decision-making will require increasingly that we take change, and often change of a multifaceted, difficult-to-predict sort, into account.

Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering challenges us to think about change in new ways. A first way changes picture becomes new is particularly provocative. Along with helping us better acknowledge change and making change more understandable, culturally mature perspective makes change part of the substance of understanding. We see this with developmental/evolutionary thought. Change becomes an inescapable contributor to any moment’s significance. When we include change as an intrinsic property, complexity’s picture changes in striking ways. We are used to thinking of existence as static unless acted on by some external force. Here we find a particularly provocative bridging. In the new picture, existence becomes not just a noun, but as much a verb.

Change-infused understandings today finds growing influence, and not just where the focus of interest is ourselves. I think of the increasingly recognized concept of emergence (first coined by philosopher C. D. Broad). In complex systems of every sort interactions can produce new elements that are not only greater than the sum of their parts, they are not understandable as a simple adding together of parts. We see such emergent properties in how a weather pattern can suddenly coalesce to create a cyclone, in the appearance of new biological structures in evolution (such as the first crude eyes), or with the way a gathering of individuals can becomes a community (or a mob).

Emergence is explicitly a bridging notion. Life’s origins from a substrate of lifeless chemicals provides the most dramatic example of an emergent event. This view of life’s origins challenges equally the beliefs of people with more mechanistic/reductionistic and more vitalistic/spiritual inclinations. Emergence in human systems is similarly non-dualistic. It is never just top-down or bottom up, but rather a property of the system as a whole. This so whether our interest lies with how new insights arise from the interplay of perceptions in the mind of an individual, or more collectively, with how not just new ideas, but new forms of organization can manifest spontaneously in group interactions. Good leadership in a culturally mature reality becomes about managing complexly complex—at once ultimately uncertaint and intricately interrelated—systemically emergent possibilities.

A second way changes new picture is new follows directly from the first. It applies wherever we look, but takes on particular importance when our interest is human systems. The essential recognition: What is true at one time may not at all be true in another. Culturally mature leadership requires a keen appreciation for when “an idea has time has come” and also when it has not.

Especially important when it comes to Cultural Maturity is having an appreciation for the depth at which cultures change and the value of  frameworks that can help us understand just how they do. Today’s globalized world requires increasingly that we interact with populations rooted in widely diverse points in culture’s evolving narrative. Our frameworks need to help us better understand past time-specific stories, and more—how the changes that take us from one chapter to the next in culture’s story take place, and how stories of different sorts might predictably interact one with the other. We would hope, too, that our frameworks could tell us something about how the ways we think in times ahead may be different from what we have seen in times past.

A couple bridging-related questions help fill out our understanding of the specific changes that produce Cultural Maturity. The first question concerns just how we advocate for such change. Do we apply hard work—“make change happen.” Pretty clearly we do this or fail. But developmental/evolutionary perspective might seem to suggest something almost opposite. We can simply get out of the way—let change “happen naturally.” Systemically two-handed processes are always at work with change in human systems. But appreciating how this is so becomes particularly important when our interest lies with today’s changes.

Bringing about Cultural Maturity’s changes will certainly require foresight, perspective, clear decision-making and courage. I argue that doing so will require all of these things at a level we have not before seen. And there is no guarantee that we will succeed with all that these changes ask of us. If the “make change happen” aspect of change were not an essential part of the equation, I would not be writing this book and you would not be reading it. We’d just be sitting back and watching it all happen.

But, at the same time, if we are not dealing with change process that already exists, at least as potential, we are in deep trouble. The needed sophistication of relating, thinking, and acting is well beyond anything we could just make up. And certainly we couldn’t make it all up quickly enough to address today’s overwhelming array of maturity-requiring challenges. We find evidence for this conclusion in the broad assortment of modern advances that are consistent with the concept of Cultural Maturity’s predictions. These parallel advances have not been products of some coordinated movement, but rather something “in the air.” Some greater coordination might be a good thing at this point, but we should nonetheless find reassurance that more fundamental appears at work.

In times ahead, effective leadership of every sort will increasingly require such an explicitly two-handed relationship to change. We need to be conscious of changes that will be needed and bring the needed courage and commitment to bear. We also need to be sensitive to “ideas whose time has come” dynamics that affect both our ability to understand needed changes and effectively making them manifest. This applies to changes processes of all sorts.

This needed dual sensitivity is not wholly foreign to us. At a more personal-development level, it is required of any good teacher. Effective teaching requires both sensitivity to a child’s developmental readiness and skilled instruction. The difference with Cultural Maturity is that it is ourselves who we are teaching. And the “student” we engage with our teaching includes not just ourselves as individuals, but the whole of the human species.

Our second question relates to how Cultural Maturity’s changes are similar and different from change in human systems more generally. Traditionally we’ve had two options when thinking about how change progresses. There is one-step-after-the-other continuous change, and there is discontinuous change that alters everything. In going for a drive, the passing scenery represents continuous change. If our car breaks down we encounter the more radical consequences of discontinuous change. Understanding Cultural Maturity’s changes again requires that we bridge in our thinking. It also requires us to address aspects of developmental/evolutionary process that at a cultural scale are unique to our time.

Limited to these options, we miss the mark in a not terribly consequential sense when our concern is any change that involves developmental stages. Any time of transition between stages is in one sense continuous: each stage represents predictable next steps within a developmental process And at the same time, each new stage marks a distinct break. No stage can be fully understood within the assumptions of any of the others. In speaking of cultures evolution as having chapters I’ve chosen language that supports this more specifically two-handed kind of change dynamic.

But the traditional either/or picture can result in us missing the mark in a way that can lead us badly astray when our concern is today’s changes. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes produce not just a leap in organization, but a leap of unique significance. We must acknowledge this uniqueness if we are appreciate either the depth of the challenge our times present or the richness of the potential rewards. In this sense Cultural Maturity’s changes are dramatically discontinuous.

But the more continuous aspect of developmental change plays just as important role. Miss its contribution and our advocacies will prove at best naïve. At worst they can end up dangerously misdirected. What we witness is particular to our time, and particular transforming, but this is not “big bang” transformation. Certainly it is not transformational change in the magical-answer sense we commonly associate with the phrase—whether the source of the “magic” is world-saving technologies or some idealized “new consciousness.”

The changes we confront today may be more fundamentally transforming than those of times past, but at once they represent predicted next steps in a continuing narrative. And while the demands they make are particularly great, in the end what they ask is only that we see what has always been there to see, just with a bit more courage. The outcome they promise is straightforward—a new common sense.