14 September 2010

Want to Change the World?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”—R. Buckminster Fuller

Fuller and Marshall McLuhan were acquaintances—perhaps one could even call them friends. Certainly, they shared aspects of a worldview when it came to understanding processes of change. (On the other hand, McLuhan was a Paul Revere-ish figure when it came to technology: “To arms! To arms! The media are coming.” Fuller, on the other, other hand, embraced the beneficent potential of technological change.) With regard to this “Bucky” quotation, I notice the explicit reference to obsolescence, and the tacit implication of reversal (which is my favourite among McLuhan’s four Laws of Media).

When a particular idea, conception, invention, or technology (all “media” in McLuhan’s construction) is no longer providing the structural impetus for a society or culture, it is, in McLuhan’s terms, obsolete. As he notes, this doesn’t mean that it disappears; in fact, it might be just the opposite. Obsolescence means that the thing or concept in question becomes ubiquitous in a banal sort of fashion—like some fashion (think, cloned couturier at Walmart, for example). It is almost always the case that the new medium – more precisely, the effects of the new medium – goes relatively unnoticed for a long while, all the time reframing, reshaping, and re-engaging the means and consequences of human interactions. But it is the new medium’s ability to diminish the dominant influence of the old – to force the latter’s obsolescence – that enables change.

It is often the case that a medium is pushed too far, forcing it into what McLuhan calls reversal—the state in which the effects of the original medium “flip” into their opposite. Whereas obsolescence is the tetrad quadrant of the past, reversal is the quadrant of the future. It is the means and mechanism of large-scale, systemic change.

Bureaucratic, administratively controlled, hierarchical organizations have been around for a long time—arguably since the 10th century or so, an in the modernist context, since the post-Enlightenment (i.e., 17th century) period. The Industrial Age confirmed the BAH organization as a “best practice,” more or less, and from that foundation 20th century thinking progressed (and I use that term loosely) towards structural contingency theories: the idea that an organization’s structure determines its effectiveness, and that structure is contingent on the environment external to the organization among its markets, customers, competitors, regulators, and so forth. It sort of makes sense, in a deterministic, linearly causal, Industrial Age, clockwork notion of factory-style organizations. It characterizes “the existing reality,” or at least the reality that existed as we entered modernity.

Problematic? Sure. Dysfunctional? Clearly. Changeable? Ah, that’s the proverbial $64,000 question. You see, that so-called existing reality is no longer the current reality, that is the reality of contemporary times.

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. Build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

That is why I created Valence Theory, and why I focus on interventions that don’t fight the existing reality in organizations, but rather introduce a new model that is more effective – creating an explicit awareness of effects – in order to help all members of the organization truly change things.

If you are the type of organizational leader who believes that his or her employees are the problem, or the arrangement of the organization chart is the problem, or that the solution lies in simply implementing new technology that makes old processes more efficient, then I might be able to offer you assistance via individual coaching and counsel. However, if you are the type of leader who realizes that their organization’s existing reality will not sustain it through this current period of complexity and transition, I definitely can assist with a new, effective model and methods that make the existing model quite obsolete.

06 September 2010

Zen and the Art of Organizational Transformation, Effectiveness, and Sustainable Change

I’m re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the classic, 1970s, philosophical novel by Robert M. Pirsig about one man’s journey into the philosophy of science, epistemology, the elusiveness of quality, and the process of (re)discovering oneself through a reconciliation of the romantic with the classical (read: rational). I read it the first time when I was much too young (recommended to me by my manager early in my professional career), and now am appreciating the philosophical reflections on replaying an earlier life, cut short by technology. In a very real sense, that description characterizes aspects of my own journey. Like the author, I too have learned the benefits of having become a reflective practitioner, the value of applying philosophy to practical matters, and a quest for understanding the elusive nature of quality in systems of organization.

I was struck, the other day, by a passage early in Chapter 8:
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There's so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.
The second issue (I’ll get to the first one shortly) raised in this passage – the notion that tearing down the factory, or implementing organizational change, for example – without seriously challenging the underlying assumptions that gave rise to the particular form in the first place, is relatively futile if what one wants to achieve is sustainable change. I’m biased of course: my entire research is directed towards creating a new, fundamental understanding of organization so that theories of leadership, effectiveness, and transformation may be consistent with contemporary circumstances, rather than those of classical, Industrial Age thinking. To paraphrase Pirsig, if one attempts to institute organizational change, let alone “transformation for sustainability” that seems to be in vogue these days, but the systemic patterns of thought that produced that organization (and its problems, quirks, dysfunctions, and ineffectiveness) are left intact, than those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding organization.

When one is seeking to restructure an organization, or to integrate multiple organizational cultures after one or more mergers, or to revitalize leadership, or even something as relatively minor (in the large scheme of things) as implementing new workflow processes in the hopes of improving operational efficiency, it is important to recognize the dynamics that caused the need for change in the first place. Understand those dynamics, articulate the nature of the desired effects (not goals or outcomes—effects), and then set about enabling new organizational structures, operations, leadership processes, and the rest. (Valence Theory, of course, provides the necessary vocabulary and tools for the recommended understanding and articulation.)

This brings me to the first issue that Pirsig quickly zooms by, leaving it in a cloud of assumptive dust: the question of effects. From the classical perspective – one that adheres to the Newtonian, clockwork universe of “cause (first) and (then) effect” – it is easily understood what he is getting at. He speaks of the importance of attacking not effects but the underlying causes which have to do with persistent, old-style thinking. I agree, but one should not give such short shrift to the effectiveness of effects. We may, among our organizations, seek to accomplish goals and objectives. However, in all of our myriad approaches to planning, there is no way of knowing whether the goals and objectives we strive to accomplish are, in fact, the correct goals and objectives. Those goals and objectives? They are simply a means to an end, and that end is the resulting effects we enact among the various constituencies with whom we interact. Please think about that last comment for a second or two: goals and objectives by themselves are meaningless; their context, and hence meaning, is solely derived from the effects they enable among the organization's various interconnected constituencies.

Sustainable organizational change is only sustainable relative to those social, material, and spiritual environments with which the organization engages, combines, and interacts. That means being completely aware of the effects one intends to enable and create, and the effects that actually emerge, through any introduced process of transformation or change. Admittedly, this is a significant challenge for contemporary leaders, not unlike that of reconceiving the notion of the unitary, classical nature of a motorcycle to reach the epiphany that Pirsig’s narrator realizes when he finally reconnects with the forcibly departed Phaedrus.

Classical notions are no longer adequate to understand the complex dynamics of the contemporary world, nor of the contemporary organization. Change is only sustainable if it emerges organically from the environment that contextualizes it.

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