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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1 comment:

cünEyt paLa said...

interesting, very interesting. right now I'm working with at zen society on reorganizing.
here is my blog zenpluswhat.wordpress.com
it is a little thin right now as I started writing my report instead of blogging.