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A Deficit View of the World

Stephen Billing, May 19, 2009

The gap analysis perspective can divert your attention from noticing what is going on around you at this very moment.

It is common for many people to see the world as an ideal contrasted with a reality. People are measured against an ideal standard and are diagnosed in relation to that standard. The gap analysis is the classic example – where do you want to be compared to where you are now. There is a deficit and the solution is to work out a plan to close the gap.

Patricia Benner in The Primacy of Caring points out that this orientation towards some future ideal state has some cost. The price people pay for having this mindset is that they become blinded to the possibilities in their current situation. Because their focus is on the future and the gap, it is not on what is going on around them at the present moment.

This reminds me of the acres of diamonds story – I think I heard it from Brian Tracy and it may well be apocryphal. It concerns a farmer who sold up his farm and went off to another country to hunt for diamonds. Years later, he died, penniless and alone. In the meantime, on his farm that he had sold years earlier, guess what they found? Some very very large diamonds.

I think that the focus on an ideal future and the deficit compared to the current state stops people in organisations from seeing the possibilities in what is going on around them. It stops them from seeing the acres of diamonds that are present right now.

In your organisation where are the areas in which you are talking about what should be in the future at the expense of noticing what is going on around you at this very moment?



  1. I’m really pleased to read this comment. I’ve been thinking some time about the problem with the goal-setting culture, and this really focuses this aspect. I think also, it leads us to be living ‘in the future’ rather than being present and taking in all the good things about where we are now.

    Comment by Adrian Raynor — May 21, 2009 @ 5:05 am

  2. There is a real future orientation in our organisational literature. It stops us noticing not only the good things going on right now, but also diverts us from noticing accurately what is going on, including both the good and not-so-good stuff.

    Comment by Stephen — May 21, 2009 @ 7:26 am

  3. Stephen,
    Have you come across this quotation from John Dewey, who was drawing attention to the same phenomenon you point to:
    “The ideal of using the present simply to get ready for the future contradicts itself. It omits, and even shuts out, the very conditions by which a person can be prepared for his future. We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything.”

    Comment by Chris Mowles — May 24, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  4. These four preceding comments take me to a special place that I have discovered on a very phenomenological level. Be fully present, engaged, and grateful in each present moment. It is the only way to attend to the future. We have otherwise no more control of anything in the future than we do of the past. Thanks all.

    Comment by Daniel Shuster — June 23, 2009 @ 12:18 pm

  5. All well and good and philosophical but for some people burdened with a ghastly present – no matter which way they look at it – hope and aspiration are the only things that get them through.

    Comment by Tim Wright — June 24, 2009 @ 10:52 pm

  6. I think Tim that what you are saying is that a view of the future can help people who have a horrible present. At times people cannot see any of the diamonds that may or may not be under their feet.

    I am talking about life in organisations. The literature exhorts people to have goals for the future. This is particularly so in organisations where the orientation towards achieving future goals is so strong. My point is that this drive towards the future in our organisational life has a price – the overlooking of what is currently going on in the organisation.

    If people have a ghastly present, then the focus on aspiration for the future can also get in the way of having an accurate view of the current situation and how to change it.

    For example, reflecting on what led to the current situation can help to understand how it came to be the way it is now. Especially when such reflection is done with a trusted other. Instead, people are exhorted to focus on an ideal future, which has a temporary uplifting effect that can divert attention from the pain of the present by concentrating on intentions for the future, but does not help to really understand the present situation.

    Comment by Stephen — June 24, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  7. Hi Stephen,

    Another interesting discussion!

    Perhaps it might be worthwhile to challenge the underlying assumption on which this presumed problem of goal setting and future orientation is based. That is, it assumes that aspiring to some ideal future state and paying full attention to what’s happening in the ‘here and now’ are mutually exclusive pursuits. A couple of contrasting perspectives might suggest different ways of looking at this apparent current-future dichotomy and offer new possibilities.

    The first of these is very familiar to you. What the ‘Stacey School’ refers to as “the living present” includes the idea that “… the future, as expectation and anticipation, is in the detail of actual interactions taking place now …” (Douglas Griffin, “The Emergence of Leadership”). To me, this suggests that the meaning we extract from the present will unavoidably be influenced by the nature of the future that we perpetually construct, by way of anticipation, in this same present. That is, our in-the-moment experience unavoidably contains within it our hopes/ fears, aspirations/ resignations and expectations of ‘what is to come’. If we shift these expectations – or how we view the “future in the present” – the way that we experience and make sense of the ‘here and now’ will also shift.

    Secondly, at the other end of the philosophical spectrum is the Solutions Focus approach. As you may be aware, this begins by defining an ideal future state or “future perfect”. It also sets out to establish a view of the current state in relation to this perceived ideal. In these respects, it is not significantly different from other goal-focused approaches. However, in contrast to conventional practice, the ensuing conversation does not concern itself with the gap between these two. Instead, it looks in detail at what’s happening now. If this is supported by a technique known as “scaling” (where the ideal = 10, on a scale of 0 to 10, and the current = X, say), the conversation then homes in on why the present state merits a ‘score’ of X and not zero. This shifts the focus onto what is going well (an appreciative stance), rather than on faults and deficiencies (a deficit-based approach).

    As these positive attributes of the present state emerge, the explicit challenge becomes one of building on these incrementally, to move towards a more rewarding state (the “future perfect”). At the same time, for those of us who believe that change happens through the conversations that people have, this shift in tone and content will naturally lead to change in those who participate in them – even if the nature and outcome of these changes cannot be predicted or controlled!


    Comment by Chris Rodgers — June 25, 2009 @ 9:36 am

  8. [...] Interesting meditation on change dynamics, by Stephen Billing: [...]

    Pingback by P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Non-dualistic change dynamics — June 26, 2009 @ 6:33 pm

  9. I’ve heard the ‘acres of diamonds’ story as well and yes, rather apt.

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