A report on change, business, and epistemology, with a bit of science and a bit of history.
Change is for those who want to understand the nature and dynamics of change, but especially for those who are actively trying to create change in the world of affairs— particularly, but by no means only, leaders and decision makers in business, or indeed in complex organizations of any kind.
Through a series of conceptual snapshots taken from a wide variety of different angles, Change strives to piece together a comprehensive overview of the absolute state-of-the-art in understanding and creating change, and along the way seeks to offer readers a wide range of in‑depth, practical insights into the art and science of transformation.
We hope that Change will not only radically change how you understand change, but also how you go about achieving it—in effect, making your change efforts more effective and more effortless.
Succeeding issues of Change will expose, one by one, the age-old, dangerously misleading myths about change that remain ubiquitous in business and in the world of affairs more broadly.
These costly, damaging, and frequently crippling myths are rarely if ever questioned in mainstream management and social science literature, but all can readily be shown to be baseless. Meanwhile, as unconscious tacit assumptions disappearing into the wallpaper, these myths about change act as a powerful brake on business and economic growth, severely delaying—potentially catastrophically—both corporate and societal transformation as well as opportunities for human betterment, the low-hanging fruit left to rot on the vine.
Our tagline, For movers not shakers, alludes to one of these many myths: the myth that change inherently involves disruption. It doesn’t, and Change is published above all for those who would prefer to create radical transformations for the better—even, if necessary, turning things upside down—without first having to shake things up. Creating lasting major change in the world, at least in our own experience, needn’t ever disrupt what anyone is already doing, or take them away from their day-to-day tasks, not even for a moment. Since when has business ever been “as usual”? After all, in any vital, living system, as everyone knows, change is the only constant.
While our scientific work over the years has spanned the study of change in nature and in human affairs fairly comprehensively, and irrespective of whether change in a given instance occurs naturally or inadvertently, or deliberately and by design, our focus here in Change will be on the very practical matter of deliberate change—purposefully creating a significant transformation in the world in pursuit of your objectives. Creating effective, large-scale change that lasts is invariably easy, fast and certain if you go about it the right way, armed with a set of assumptions fitting the way things actually work. Which is why we are here on Substack, and why you may want to stick around, subscribe, and join our community.
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Ellen Arkfeld, Editor of Change, is CEO of Interchange Research. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, Ellen studied Philosophy, Clinical Epistemology and History of Medicine at the University of Oxford. Ellen is the only student to have studied the philosophical and scientific theory behind our change methodology as an undergraduate in a bespoke, graduate-style, university degree course. Hooked on the ideas ever since, she has been immersed in the work of Interchange Research since 2014, working to master the philosophical foundations and scientific theory as well as the proprietary change methodology itself.
Ellen currently directs the Interchange team’s advisory sessions with the C-suite of Fortune 100 companies, having successfully addressed challenges valued in billions of dollars to date, and she has been developing innovative training materials for the Interchange Research Fellows’ internal advanced training programme.
The lead contributor to Change, Dr James Wilk, is Director and Managing Partner of Interchange Research. For decades James has acted as senior advisor to the CEOs and C‐suite of the world’s leading corporations as well as third-sector and government leaders at local, regional, national and international level. Working in close partnership with the CEOs of leading corporations on both sides of the Atlantic, with somewhere in the region of a trillion dollars under advisory to date, he has helped them create permanent change in ‘impossible’ timeframes and transform and dramatically accelerate the growth of their businesses.
James has led some thousands of successful corporate transformations over the years, a significant portion of which have been in the area of culture change. He has worked at the forefront of Digital Transformation since 1996, from the C‑suite of leading technology companies to pioneering digital startups, including the world’s first successful mobile advertising platform, which was hatched in his living room in November 2005.
James is an Oxford philosophy don, scientist and clinician who has spent his career studying change in depth across a wide range of fields encompassing academic philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, philology, physiology, public policy, biosemiotics, the social sciences, geopolitics, art history, the history of ideas, elite sport, design and cybernetics. For the past 20 years James has also been teaching philosophy at the University of Oxford where he has been based for over half his adult life. His work on change has been featured in Forbes and Wired, as well as in The Economist as long ago as 1990.
James had embarked as a schoolboy on the quest that would determine the course of his career, when he set himself the theoretical problem of how to analyze any system in advance of intervening in it, to pinpoint the smallest intervention into that system that would flip it from the existing state to the desired state, all-at-once, and with nothing in between. Already well along the way on his scientific quest, he went up to Oxford early to train as a philosopher and physiologist, specializing in neuroscience and self-organizing complex adaptive systems, including the study of what would come to be known as biosemiotics.
He subsequently completed further postgraduate work at Oxford in psychology, sociology, social policy and social intervention. A highly qualified and accomplished cybernetician and a Fellow of the Cybernetics Society for over 35 years, he was based for a decade at Brunel University, London in what had been the former, world-renowned Institute of Cybernetics where he completed his doctoral work on a General Theory of Intervention—laying the foundations for the scientific study of change. This was the theory he had sought since his schooldays, and together with his Interchange think-tank colleagues he would spend the next twenty-five years and more developing an effective, proprietary, practical change technology with revolutionary implications, based on the radically new body of scientific theory.
For more than thirty years he has applied his work on change extensively to the fields of public health, healthcare delivery and health policy at the highest level, and he is a Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine where he served as Senior Advisor to the President from 2007–2017. A highly qualified, seasoned clinician in the psychiatric field and a pioneer of very brief psychotherapy, since 2017 James has served on the Board of Directors, Section V, Division 39, of the American Psychological Association, in the Section for Applied Clinical Psychoanalysis of the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology—fields in which many of his approaches to change have also been applied and tested.
Since 2009 he has been researching and writing a detailed history of the revolution in ideas on which his life’s work has been based, spanning a period of some 300 years, currently with a particular focus on the history of medicine and physiology in the Germanies of the 18th Century. When he’s not at 38,000 feet, he lives in the World Heritage city of Bath, England.
After James read and corrected the bio above, he remarked, “Well, at least our readers will get the picture that I’ve been around the block a few times, and that I’ve actually managed to get a 360-degree view of change from a pretty wide range of different perspectives, so when they finally cotton on to just how radically heterodox my views on change are, maybe they’ll take heed because they’ll know it’s not just me talking through my hat!”
A Note on Our Logo: Navigating Change
In case you’re curious, our publication’s logo, designed for us by the London-based Portuguese architect and designer Paulo Rui Gonçalves da Costa, represents, in white on a purple background, a stylized, ancient rudder with tiller, sporting a blue, mini-Hokusai-like wave design on the rudder’s blade. Such a rudder was a later refinement of the classical gubernaculum or steering oar, which the gubernator or helmsman (Gr: kybernetes) would use to steer the ship.
Plato, in The Republic, compared the art or craft of governing to that of a skilled kybernetes steering the ship of state. The art of navigation or steersmanship of which Plato spoke (kybernetike) was translated by the French physicist André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) as cybernétique to denote the science of government; the French cybernetician Louis Couffignal (1902–1966) would later redefine cybernetics as the art and science of effective action.
From gubernaculum comes the modern French word for rudder, gouvernail; hence gouverner—to steer, to govern—which retains something of its original nautical connotation in French, and of course shares common roots with our English words govern and government of Anglo-Norman origin.
The English use of governor to mean manager goes back to the early 14th Century, and governor remains an informal British term for manager or boss, especially one’s immediate superior—a usage going back to at least 1783—and is still occasionally used to this day, especially in the form of guv’nor or guv’, as a mainly working-class British colloquial form of address, often nowadays merely jocular, when speaking respectfully to a man unfamiliar to the speaker or with whom one has no particular relationship, much like the vocative use of boss or sir.
The gubernaculum in our logo thus symbolizes management or helmsmanship, as well as symbolizing the scientific principle of directiveness, as promulgated in 1945 by the Scottish biologist E. S. Russell (1887–1954) and thereafter retaining an important use in the British school of cybernetics—a concept key to understanding change.
Governing first acquired its modern engineering sense in 1788 when the Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) used the term flyball governor for the device controlling the speed of rotation of his improved steam engine, in a clever adaptation of the centrifugal regulator which had been invented by the Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695) a century earlier. When Watts’s steam engine reached a pre-selected speed, the governor would trigger a valve shutting off the flow of steam, thus preventing the engine from running any faster, and in this way the engine, when put to work, could maintain a constant speed despite a fluctuating load. Watts’s invention, which drove the industrial revolution, critically depended on the cybernetic principle of “negative feedback” which his flyball governor illustrated.
So now look again at our logo, but this time in reverse video: the figure in purple and blue on a white background represents a stylized ouroboros, the ancient Egyptian and Greek symbol of the mythical serpent swallowing its own tail. In hermeticism, gnosticism and alchemy, and throughout the iconography of both East and West from the Neolithic Chinese Yangshao culture (3000–5000 B.C.E.) through the Vedas to Norse mythology, the ouroboros has for millennia symbolized infinity, non-duality, and wholeness. Alchemists from the 3rd Century A.D. have also used the ouroboros to symbolize the Philosophers’ Stone, and for Jung, in his exegesis of alchemical texts, it symbolized the integration of opposites, and hence can symbolize also the Hegelian synthesis.
The pioneering German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé 1829– 1896), while dozing in front of a fire in Ghent one evening in January or February 1862, dreamt of the ouroboros, at which point he awoke and had his celebrated epiphany in which he realized the ringlike structure of the benzene molecule and hence of all aromatic compounds. Kekulé initiated in that moment the concept of chemical structure, and the ouroboros dream episode thus played a pivotal role in the birth of modern organic chemistry—which makes the ouroboros a fitting symbol of the realm of the organic as a whole, as well as being an emblem signifying an epiphany.
Like the gubernaculum, the ouroboros has likewise often been used as a symbol in cybernetics to suggest the concept of negative feedback as well as the more general cybernetic principles of recursiveness and what natural scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) called ‘the fact of circuitry’ in nature and in human interaction. But why all this talk of cybernetics? Stay tuned. We’ll have more than a bit to say in the pages of Change about the cybernetic revolution and how it transforms our understanding of change and effective action.
Also note our ouroboros’s prominent, extravagantly long, curling blue tongue. The spiral form chosen for the tongue makes use of a familiar motif in cybernetic literature as well as in the sacred architecture of many cultures. For the spiral is one of the commonest forms in nature, from the double helix of DNA and the shells of many molluscs, to phyllotaxis and plant morphology and development more generally, not to mention whirlpools and even the galaxy itself. The blue tongue (langue) is highlighted in the centre of our publication’s logo, for language turns out to play a central role in both understanding and creating change.
Note that our ouroboros’s tongue is forked. While a forked tongue befits any self-respecting serpent, this particular fork was purposefully introduced, in the first place, as a reminder and admonition regarding the deceptive power of language (speaking “with forked tongue”) which must be guarded against in any change effort. And second, the fork was also consciously intended as an explicit reference to Hume’s Fork between conceptual matters and matters of empirically observable fact, and by extension to Hume’s Law regarding the impossibility of deriving a judgement of value from purely factual information—two further principles important to understanding change and effective action.
The choice of the colour purple for our logo is a tribute to the pioneering work of Dr M. H. Erickson (1901–1980). Erickson’s well-known, pioneering work on change in psychotherapy has proved to be immensely fertile both clinically and scientifically, and the movement in psychotherapy he spawned took the colour purple, Erickson’s personal trademark, as emblematic.
Less well-known was Erickson’s seminal role, interrupted by America’s entry to World War II, in catalyzing the landmark transdisciplinary Macy Conferences which in turn galvanized the cybernetic movement. The true birthplace of the Macy Conferences, according to Margaret Mead (1901–1978), was the interdisciplinary meeting, one of a series of colloquia, hosted by the New York Psychoanalytic Society on December 7th, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Mead had been a participant in that meeting together with Erickson, Bateson, the experimental psychopathologist Howard Liddell (1895–1962) and the psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie (1896–1973), the meeting’s organizer.
That event spawned a small follow-on conference in 1942 on cerebral inhibition, on which Erickson was the leading authority, organized by Frank Fremont-Smith (1895–1974). Fremont-Smith was soon to be the Medical Director of the Josiah Macy Foundation, and after the war, massively expanding on the successful 1942 conference, he would organize a Macy Conference held in 1946, followed by further conferences on cybernetics in 1947, 1948 and annually from 1949 through 1953.
Our logo’s designer, Paulo da Costa, familiarized himself with a good deal of the literature behind the ideas we were seeking to express, as summarized above, and managed to incorporate these multiple conceptual reference points into a single, striking image.