Many creative works are the expression of tension or frustration between what is expected and what is actually observed and this book is no exception. The idea for this book originated during an academic conference on organizational change in the city of Oranienburg, which is located about 20 kilometers from Berlin and infamous for the location of one of the first Nazi concentration camps. On a particular evening, while enjoying a local beer in a small pub, we (i.e., the authors) entered into a discussion about the gap between the academic theory and daily practice of organizational change. Of main interest was our observation that most academic studies on the subject do not (accurately) reflect many of the challenges encountered in change projects. Exploring the reasons for the mismatch between the theory and practice of organizational change an old parable came to mind, which is part of ancient Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, and Jain teachings, and is called 'the blind men and the elephant'.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
Once upon a time, there lived six blind men in a village. One day the villagers told them, "Hey, there is an elephant in the village today." They had no idea what an elephant is, and decided, "Even though we would not be able to see it, let us go and feel it anyway." All of them went there, and touched the elephant. "Hey, the elephant is a pillar," said the first blind man who touched his leg. "Oh, no! It is like a rope," said the second blind man who touched the tail. "Oh, no! It is like a thick branch of a tree," said the third blind man who touched the trunk of the elephant. "It is like a big hand fan," said the fourth blind man who touched the ear of the elephant. "It is like a huge wall," said the fifth blind man who touched the belly of the elephant. "It is like a solid pipe," said the sixth blind man who touched the tusk of the elephant. They began to argue about the elephant and every one of them insisted that he was right, and they started to get agitated. A wise man was passing by and he saw this. He stopped and asked them, "What is the matter?" They said, "We cannot agree to what the elephant is like." Each one of them told what he thought the elephant was like. The wise man calmly explained to them, "All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all those features what you all said." "Oh!" everyone said. There was no more fight. They felt happy that they were all right (Jainworld, 2012).
Figure 1 The blind men and the elephant
This story is often used to provide insight into the relativity, opaqueness, or inexpressible nature of the truth, the behaviour of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives (Wikipedia, 2012). In the context of our observation of a mismatch between theory and practice on organizational change, this parable can be interpreted as follows.
The academic approach is mainly analytical, which implies that the domain of investigation is divided into smaller elements or parts (e.g., natural science versus social science) to enable a detailed investigation (i.e., specialization) of the components parts to gain an understanding of the system as a whole (i.e., the elephant). Over time, further distinctions are made, and sub-disciplines emerge (e.g., social sciences is subdivided into economics, sociology, psychology, history, et cetera) that zoom in further and further on a particular subject or phenomena. Basically, an increasingly smaller part of science (i.e., the elephant) is studied, by creating more and more abstract concepts, categories, and theories. To increase progress, sub-disciplines are allowed to evolve autonomously (i.e., independent from one another), so that specific lan