In discussions about change in a complex system I commonly hear people object, “We can’t do that because X.”

(That statement often follows a passive-aggressive prelude such as “That’s all well and good” or “being tactical for a moment.” Depending on your organizational culture you may also hear “That’s great in theory…” Or if your company is more aggressive-aggressive, “Get real!")

My advice is to reformulate that statement. Treat the blocker as a missing prerequisite: “In order to do that, X must be true. Let’s see what it would take.”

At that point, you may find “We can’t do X because Y.” Keep going, turn Y into a prerequisite for X. As you continue this process, you’re building out a “future reality tree”. It is a tree of preconditions that ultimate arrive at a desirable effect.

Now comes the really hard part. You have to scrutinize the resulting tree. I recommend using the “Categories of Legitimate Reservation” that emerged from Eliyahu Goldratt’s work on the Theory of Constraints.

Once you’re satisfied that the tree is a true depiction of the preconditions, you need to get brutally honest and look for unintended consequences. For every precondition in your tree, ask “what other effects will result.” Those effects are consequences. You must add those to your tree, otherwise you only consider benefits not costs or drawbacks.

When you’re done with this tree, you need to evaluate it. Does the net result of all the consequences produce a better outcome than the situation you’re in? Are the actions needed to create the preconditions possible? Feasible?

If you’ve truly captured the prerequisites and consequences, then people who both support the changes and dislike the changes should be able to agree on the truth of the tree. If not, you are either missing preconditions, disagree about the likelihood of the consequences, or you are working from different sets of axioms.