Changing an epistemological system

An epistemological system dictates what a situation calls for. It interprets people's actions and intentions to remain consistently right. An epistemological system provides the meaning for every incident and a diagnosis for every problem.

Changing an epistemological system seems like changing the ground we stand on. We are coming from a different place when we change systems. We are on top of a situation we felt put down by. We are free to move where we felt confined. We are on an adventure where we felt stuck.

This diagram colors the two systems as red and blue. This follows a favorite book of mine: Blue Ocean Strategy where red and blue oceans are compared. Red oceans are bloodied by rivalries. The epistemological system in an industry dictates competition and costly battles to prove superiority. There is no free market space where an enterprise can "let its guard down" or "operate free of fear".

A blue ocean is uncontested market space -- providing access to untapped demand. It seems impossible to miss at revenue growth, market penetration, customer loyalty, brand development and continued innovations. It's like taking a swing at beach balls pitched over home plate. The epistemological system dictates listening and learning. Threats are seen as opportunities to make changes. Rivals are framed as valuable teachers or bad examples to learn from. Disconnects are situations that call for connecting.

Changing ground, or epistemological systems, occurs one situation at a time. Whenever it is automatically assumed what the situation calls for, a time out is called to reconsider that. What does this situation call for? When the conclusion is changed, the system is revised. Chronic people problems will go into remission.


  1. I really like this. I am assuming that people with different epistemologies can still be in the blue though. For this reason, I wouldn't put criticizing in the red - for me, done well, it's a positive activity.

  2. Thanks for the refinement. I agree that criticism can be a good thing. A better word for the red side would be condemnation, cheap shots or put downs.

  3. This is a helpful way of looking at the strategies for changing a dysfunctional system, Tom.

    One of my frustrations as a consultant is the very indirect way in which we can have influence on these systems. A lot of the work I'm currently doing is within a nationally-organized system of dysfunction that is truly frightening to behold at times. It's overwhelming to me to realize how often I have to deal with these things one conversation at a time. It's like using a flyswatter against an atomic bomb. But I persist.

    My heart breaks the most for the customers of this system, most of whom are trapped in other systems of disempowerment and dysfunction. Sometimes I just want to blow the whole thing up and start over, but it's obviously not an option.

  4. Thanks Michele. I'm thinking your perception of the magnitude of the problem (atomic bomb) is accurate. Dysfunctional systems seems as widespread, resilient and self-maintaining as you see it. I've also found it disheartening to consider the impact on customers and deal with it one conversation at a time.

    I'm taking hope in subversive forces you don't mention. Like termites in a well guarded house, there are undetected technologies, emerging cultural changes and innovative habits that will be the undoing of bureaucracies, top-down control regimes and the constant disempowerment of citizenry. There's no need to "blow it up", just watch it fall.

    I suspect the digital natives will enter jobs as think "this does not make sense" because its so different from 65 hours per week of online social networking. They will show up on different ground and think their situations will call for very different responses from the dysfunctional "business as usual".