Changing for the better?


Advances in Project Management

Living with the inherent paradox of change

By Prof Darren Dalcher
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire

United Kingdom

Humans have a fascinating, albeit paradoxical, relationship with change.

Many of us desire improvement, growth and development. Queue the stream of New Year resolutions, which infer dissatisfaction with the status quo and a commitment and promise to self-improve, change, alter some aspect of life, or develop a quality, attribute or capability, ultimately translating into better jobs, relationships, health, education, income, benefits, or simply a richer or better life. The resolutions imply recognition of inadequacies, or perceived underachievement, and a dedicated commitment to overcome or improve such shortcomings, at a convenient landmark, such as the upcoming New Year. Such resolutions are entertaining to make, following reflection on past performance, but often prove hard to keep and maintain beyond the initial burst of enthusiasm. The attitude is aptly embodied by Oprah Winfrey’s acknowledgement: ‘cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right’.

But there is also the other side of change: When a potential change is about to be imposed, the afflicted change consumers appear to resist any attempt to alter existing conditions, often fighting, blocking and undermining the imposition of new circumstances, regardless of the potential value or improvement on offer. Indeed, English novelist and essayist Mary Shelley (1797-1851) noted that ‘Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change, whilst US president, Woodrow Wilson quipped that ‘if you want to make enemies, try to change something’.

It would thus appear that change has the potential to invoke promises informed by clear illustration of benefits emerging from a great desire to improve. However, change can also engender strong feelings, resistance and protests against the intention to implement new measures.

Reconciling change

Psychologists and psychiatrists have also been fascinated with the concept of facilitating and introducing change. A long-standing debate tries to determine if individuals remain relatively constant over their lifetime, displaying a tendency for stability. The alternative view implies a degree of malleability and psychological plasticity allowing for change through adjustments. In this view culture, events, experiences and conscious decisions can play a part in effecting a change in people.

One of the fascinating perspectives comes from the tradition of Gestalt Therapy and has resulted in the development of the paradoxical theory of change. The basic concept is associated with the thinking of psychiatrist Fredrick Perls, implemented throughout the life and work of his disciple, Arnold Beisser.

Beisser was an extremely talented tennis player (ranked 17th in the world) and qualified MD when he was struck down by polio at the age of 25, a mere months before the polio vaccine became widely available. Suddenly, the active young man found himself plugged into a negative pressure ventilator (iron lung) enabling him to breathe after losing normal muscle control. The change was particularly hard as he found himself, in his own words, ‘transformed from doctor into patient and from champion into cripple’.

Despite his paralysis, Beisser was able to re-build his life and become a leading psychotherapist who influenced the lives of a multitude of patients including many athletes and sports personalities. Beisser developed an influential theory of psychological, mental and emotional change by analysing his own journey to function despite his sudden and life changing disability, allowing him to practice and formulate the principles of the paradoxical theory of change.

“Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions.”     − Arnold Beisser

Stated simply, change begins when one ceases trying to be what they are not, and begins instead to be what they are.

Beisser himself took time to accept the change in his circumstances. Entering the rest of his life in a wheelchair first meant recognising that things were different. The great insight is that the purpose of the therapy, intervention, or reflection is to allow the subject to be.

With that in mind, sessions can be dedicated to becoming comfortable with being. When the subject is comfortable with their state of being, there are obvious changes and adjustments that can take place, as the surrounding environment around them continues to change. In order to remain true to themselves, they can continue to change in response to external changes to the world and other people and systems around them, thereby reflecting the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment.

Psychiatrists have since expanded their scope of interest beyond the individual self to encompass social change, and the wider need to reflect the interaction with shifting society, moving and transforming at an even faster pace.

Paradoxically, the implication to practice is that while changing may be the motivation for an inquiry into current conditions, one does not change by trying to change. Instead one changes (gradually) by being; as change only follows not changing.


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Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower and other publishers in the Routledge family. Each month an introduction to the current article is provided by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower/Routledge Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM. Prof Dalcher’s article is an introduction to the invited paper this month in the PMWJ.



About the Author

Darren Dalcher, PhD

Series Editor
Director, National Centre for Project Management
University of Hertfordshire, UK

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Darren Dalcher
, Ph.D. HonFAPM, FRSA, FBCS, CITP, FCMI, SFHEA is Professor of Project Management at the University of Hertfordshire, and founder and Director of the National Centre for Project Management (NCPM) in the UK. He has been named by the Association for Project Management (APM) as one of the top 10 “movers and shapers” in project management in 2008 and was voted Project Magazine’s “Academic of the Year” for his contribution in “integrating and weaving academic work with practice”. Following industrial and consultancy experience in managing IT projects, Professor Dalcher gained his PhD in Software Engineering from King’s College, University of London.

Professor Dalcher has written over 150 papers and book chapters on project management and software engineering. He is Editor-in-Chief of Software Process Improvement and Practice, an international journal focusing on capability, maturity, growth and improvement. He is the editor of the book series, Advances in Project Management, published by Gower Publishing of a new companion series Fundamentals of Project Management. Heavily involved in a variety of research projects and subjects, Professor Dalcher has built a reputation as leader and innovator in the areas of practice-based education and reflection in project management. He works with many major industrial and commercial organisations and government bodies in the UK and beyond.

Darren is an Honorary Fellow of the APM, a Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Member of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the Academy of Management, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the Association for Computing Machinery. He is a Chartered IT Practitioner. He is a Member of the PMI Advisory Board responsible for the prestigious David I. Cleland project management award and of the APM Professional Development Board. Prof Dalcher is an academic advisor for the PM World Journal. He can be contacted at [email protected]

To see other works by Prof Darren Dalcher, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/darren-dalcher/.