How To Avoid The Ship of Theseus In Organizational Change

There is a popular paradox from ancient Greece that you may be familiar with, called The Ship of Theseus – it goes like this:

There’s this ship (once used by Theseus) that’s being maintained by the Athenians who – over the course of many years – replace its parts as they become worn out. Over time, every single piece that makes up the ship has been replaced at least once which prompts the question whether or not the ship is still the Ship of Theseus.

The paradox exists as a thought experiment in different variations – another popular example is the “Grandfather’s Axe” which eventually has both its blade and handle replaced. The key question in any variation is always the same:

Does a system remain the same if its individual parts are changed?

In modern organizational development we come across this problem from a different angle:

Which elements of a system must change in order for the entire system to achieve transformation?

The ancient Athenians might have had discussions like “A ship is made up of boards; obviously it’s no longer the same since we’ve changed them all.” – “No, it’s not about the individual boards in the deck: It’s about the pattern all boards come together in.”

Modern-day consultants and evangelists debate approaches like “If we change the hierarchies we work in, the results will transform everything that matters.” – “No, they won’t: It’s not about individual organizational changes; it’s the underlying mindset that matters.”

Anyone who thinks about organizational transformation seems to come up with an answer of their own – hierarchies, processes, structures, work practices, management/leadership, frameworks, culture: You name it, there’s a guru for it, calling their personal definition of that particular element the single most important thing for organizational change – and even more experts that are quick to call them out as wrong, wrong, wrong; eager to chime in and pitch their personal truth as the correct answer.
As a result, most organizations’ ships remain firmly anchored in port; failing to embark on any meaningful journey while the philosophers of our time fight about what it really is that’s holding them back.

The Ship of Theseus is not a paradox – it’s a trap

So if you care about actually making change happen, how do you pick the right side? How do you know whether your own opinion is correct? How do you resolve the paradox?
The answer is, you don’t – because it’s not really a paradox or even a philosophical problem: The Ship of Theseus is nothing more than a semantical thinking trap. It causes confusion by exploiting the fact that there is no universal definition for what the words “Ship of Theseus” are referring to. Our languages are limited like that: It’s equally impossible to define “office”, “company” or “teamwork” in an absolute, universally valid way – they can mean very different things. However, that is not a problem per se: The way languages work still allows us to communicate our meaning in a given context just fine.

The reason why any two people – on the internet or in a meeting – will disagree on what the “right” answer is, is that they attempt to take context out of the equation: Coming from different backgrounds with unique insights and experiences, everyone believes in their own, subjective definition of what makes an organization (or a ship) what it is. Falling victim to a variant of Innovator’s Bias (explored in this worthwhile read by Ash Maurya), we unconsciously filter and interpret organizational reality to confirm the validity of the approach we already want to take – and along the way we continue to search for (or fabricate) the kind of evidence that convinces us we’re on the right track.

The Ship of Theseus creates an artificial conflict that is entirely unnecessary – just like the useless dogma-vs-dogma debates you can see on LinkedIn, Twitter or in any Agile forum of your choice. These discussions lever lead anywhere meaningful because they’re based on the flawed premise that a universally correct answer can exist independent of context.

Overcoming organizational philosophy

Instead of wasting energy attempting to resolve these pseudo-paradoxes, we can overcome them – by asking better, more meaningful questions. A ship is made for sailing, not for debating, so the question

Does a system remain the same if its individual parts are changed?

might be abandoned in favor of something like

What problem is this system supposed to solve – and is its current configuration adequate?

Looking at organizations, we might abandon the question

Which elements of a system must change in order for the entire system to achieve transformation?

and ask ourselves something like

Acknowledging our current context and given what we want to achieve: What changes appear necessary and realistic at this time – and how might we validate that?

Obviously there are lots more meaningful questions to ask. What I think is important is to ask actionable questions: Questions that have a chance of leading to answers that actually help you achieve something instead of just fueling a pseudo-philosophical thinking trap. If you know of any good ones, feel free to share your personal favorites here – I’ve touched upon quite a few in my article on how to determine whether or not your organization needs to innovate in five minutes.

Also, if you disagree with any or all of the above please don’t forget to leave a comment calling me utterly incompetent and linking to an article of your own that proves your point. And if you don’t want to miss out on your chance of doing so again next time I publish something absolutely inane, feel free to sign up for our newsletter and I’ll let you know when it’s time!


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