Is “Constant Change” an Oxymoron?

With ILITIES come contradictions

Photo by Hugo Kemmel on Unsplash

If an oxymoron is defined as a phrase that appears to sound self-contradictory, then yes, “constant change” is an oxymoron. How can something be changing and be constant (or remaining unchanged) at the same time?

Constant change is not an oxymoron. It’s actually one of the most mundane notions across all levels of existence: from molecular, to an individual organism, to cultural, and all the way to the Universe itself. Some of these changes are predictable, while others come unannounced and disrupt what we may perceive as a status quo. Be it expected or unpredictable, positive or unwelcome, change is constant in its consistency.

A paradox of needing both a safety of stability and a drive for new ventures is a natural evolutionary phenomenon. Consistent disruption of stability is likely to be detrimental to any system — be it mental and physical health of an individual or daily operations of an organization. So, we cannot ignore our need for stability. On the flip side of it, inertia, inability to adapt (read “to change”) in response to external changes, is equally hazardous.

What appears to be a paradox of stability-change duality is a common representation of ilities, or system quality attributes — in the context of this article, it is stability and agility. Many of us would agree that both organizational stability and agility are basic organizational needs and expectations. So, why not have both and assure our stakeholders that we can adapt to any changes and we are also firmly grounded in stability.

Ideally yes, we should have both of these ilities (stability and agility) guiding and supporting our operations. In fact, it would be great to add other ilities while we are at it: reliability, testability, usability, repairability (and there are many more). Why not have all of them?

Because we can’t both have our cake and eat it too. Any complex system (be it a human body, an organization, a tech solution) operates by way of an integrated web of connections, where change in one function will affect operations of other functions. Some of these effects will be negative, thus creating a contradiction between two required ilities.

Often times, such contradiction will be “apparent.” Software teams will often find many of the ilities they are pursuing, such as “flexibility” or “extensibility,” will conflict with security (a.k.a., “securability”).

If we want to see the results of this contradiction, as Medium users, most of us can attest that it’s a system that has successfully resolved the usability and security ilities. Neither ility is a trade off for the other.

If a system or organization overlooks an eminent tradeoff challenge or fails at resolving a contradiction (most likely several contradictions) between ilities, system’s viability will be seriously undermined. An organization that believes it has to stabilize (prioritize the ility of stability) and avoid change (overlook the ility of agility), will crumble as quickly as an organization that is always in the state of flux (agility) without any sign of stability.

An effective organization not simply boasts of its inherent qualities (ilities) but is successful at identifying and resolving contradictions in the context of its internal and external environment. More importantly, it has to constantly challenge that resolution in reaction to the level of stability or change in its environment. Oxymorons cause us to pause and explore the implications of contradictions, which are keys to system’s survivability.

And by the way, the word “oxymoron” itself sounds a bit oxymoronish (with Greek “oxy” translated as “sharp” and “moron” as “foolish”). And don’t even get me started on the word “sophomore” (“wise-fool”). How did we ever get through our second year of high school and college? Although there is always logic in Greek madness — but that’s a topic for another article.

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I like to stare at the intersection of complexity and chaos. My writing ranges across topics on Problem Solving, Complexity, EdTech, Folklore, and Etymology.

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Viktoria Popova

I like to stare at the intersection of complexity and chaos. My writing ranges across topics on Problem Solving, Complexity, EdTech, Folklore, and Etymology.