What is path dependence?
Path dependence develops when organisations act based on existing parameters, which were established in the past and have become ‘locked in’ by “self-reinforcing processes” (Morgan & Barden, A Beautiful Constraint, 2015, p. 37).
For example (and one you've probably heard about), the fact that railway tracks in the USA determined the width of the rocket-booster fuel engines designed for the first Space Shuttle, because that’s how they needed to be transported to Florida – and the width mattered, because they were coming from Utah and going through mountain tunnels. The engines had to fit within the tunnels – just wider than the tracks. The width of the railway tracks was based on tramlines in England, which were fitted to the width of horse-and-cart paths built along Roman roads, which were 4 feet, 8.5 inches. (If you're reading that and keep thinking of There Was an Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly, then you're not alone.)
And if you’re interested (or skeptical), here's a good explanation of how it happened:
Very early on, the British Monarchy insisted on a 4 foot 8.5 wheel spacing [for carts] because they wanted to promote and ensure maximum trade and commerce throughout the kingdom. They decreed that every wagon and ox cart had to have a wheel spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches. They needed this width to match the spacing of the ruts in English roads. They knew that if any wagon or cart had wheel spacing different then 4 feet 8.5 inches its axles would get caught up in the ruts and break and the wagon would be destroyed….
What's the problem with path dependence?
The answer is pretty clear from the fascinating example of the Space Shuttle above, but knowing more about how it happens and why and when you need to guard against it is important. It's not just something that happens in such amazing situations as the example I shared - it's almost certainly a feature in your organisation and workplace.
Path dependence happens because something that’s been done in the past has worked, so similar things in the future are modeled on them, or use the same parameters and assumptions. This is helpful and necessary when habits allow for efficiency and reduced energy. It becomes a problem when the habits, and the parameters they’re based on, have become outdated, when new information is available, and when new challenges arise (as is so obvious in the Space Shuttle example). In these cases, path dependence limits productivity and efficiency, and ignores new thinking and possibilities. Habits are very helpful, until they become ruts you’re stuck in.
For more insight into path dependence, including how to overcome it (steps to take), chapter 2 in Adam Morgan and Mark Barden’s A Beautiful Constraint is both insightful and practical.
How do Highly Responsive people help guard against the dangers of path dependence?
People with Responsive temperaments naturally look at things differently. They take in more information than others, and process it more deeply, making more connections between more pieces of data. (See, for example, Wired to Create, by Scott Kaufmann & Carolyn Gregoire, 2016: 125-27). This makes them aware of more and able to place it in relevant context. Meaning, they’re not looking at things the same way – or even looking at the same things. They ask questions, wonder why things are being done this way, consider how they can be done better, and make suggestions for them to be done that way. Or, if they have the authority (or are frustrated enough), they’ll start doing things that way.
Responsive people aren't thinking along the same paths, because they're open to difference - it's the deliberate focus of their nervous systems. They:
This is disruptive - to the status quo. People like doing things the way they’ve been doing them. It’s safe and doesn’t require new thinking. We need path dependence in some ways. But when it matters – when new challenges come, or a way to improve arises – organisations need change-makers - disruptive thinkers – to question and to find new alternatives. Transformative alternatives.
This is what Highly Sensitive people do – their temperament is made for it.
How can organisations harness this?
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Tamara - Sensitive Thrive is my consulting business. I believe that the world needs Highly Sensitive people who are flourishing. We need their hope, insight, wisdom, and awareness of beauty and possibility. My vision is to help create a culture where this temperament is known, understood and valued; where organisations seek Highly Sensitive people to work for them, because they know what they can do. Where HS people feel like they fit in their workplaces, because those workplaces also fit them. A world where HS people belong, thrive, and flourish, and the world is better for it.