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We Need To Stop Trying To 'Transforming' Organisations

Pim de Morree
Written by Pim de Morree March 13, 2020

I do what I do because I believe in it. Deeply. I believe in it so deeply it informs how I live, parent, relate, work, vote… The word ‘rebellion’ we’re using here really is just that. For many of us, the reasons for wanting to change organisations carry an almost ‘missionary’ quality. I know for my own part, and for many of my colleagues, this feels like a calling. In an old email exchange, a one well-known author and founder once referred to their job as a ‘public service’. In many cases I agree. And yet, for all the energy this gives us and has the potential to give others, it can present it

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The reasons behind our fervour for building self-organised workplaces range from increasing effectiveness, to efficiency, to engagement, to ethics, to politics, to consciousness (Bursting the bubble - Teal ain’t real), to anarchism (in the academic sense of the term). From functional reasons to more philosophical ones. And as one might imagine, this can come with a certain weight. Combined with the hyped "move fast and break things”, “disruptive innovation”, “upgrade our OS" spirit of Silicon Valley, I fear we are sometimes providing false promises, dangerous narratives and ineffective techniques to reach our own stated goals. We can be guilty of promoting ‘transformation’ as the consultants version of ‘unicorn’ like a cool headline on a 1980s Nike ad. Organisations could be forgiven for adopting “Don’t Believe The Hype” as a vaccine against a quasi-new-age approach to organisational change.

I say this guilty as charged. In fact, when it comes to promoting this mission with more nuance and consideration, I am in rehab. Caught by the stream of my own passion for this work, I have in the past on many occasions gone along with my clients desire for “transformation”. But what does it mean? Transformation to my mind promises a sudden moment where everything changes. It is the organisational version of enlightenment. A single moment where everything changes. There was a world before transformation and a world after transformation. It is like taking the red pill in the matrix. Or like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Except for that’s the problem. This is slightly too simplistic a myth. Caterpillars don’t just transform. In between being a caterpillar and being a butterfly, the little helpless "larva stops feeding, and begins "wandering" in the quest for a suitable pupation site, often the underside of a leaf or other concealed location”. [Wikipedia] Then, their bodies work hard for a couple of weeks whilst hanging upside down in claustrophobic sacks of silk. In many cases they actually go through several ‘transformations’ in a single year. I don’t deny that the change is dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful, but a lot is lost if we don’t look at the slightly ugly in-between stage. It isn’t a simple ‘Tada’ moment and ‘voila’.

And similarly nor is organisational change. In fact, such a view is perhaps dangerous. It’s like putting all your money on black. I’d rather hedge a series of small bets and distribute risk. Have you tried really ‘transforming’ an organisation? Like suddenly taking away all job titles, giving unlimited holiday, taking out all hierarchy, all in one go? I wish it were like a magician suddenly pulling a tablecloth away from under the plates, but I imagine it would be slightly different in that everything would smash to the ground. I don’t deny that there might be some rare cases where this works, but I wouldn’t recommend it as the best option for creating positive change.

Rather, I’m increasingly fond of the more emergent, tiny nudge, small tweak, iterative approach to change. Or as one organisational change consultant once put it to me: “All we can do is tickle the system”. After a decent period of really trying on this approach, I am becoming a firm believer in it. They say ’a system only accepts its own solutions’ and in my experience, this does indeed seem to be the case. As Peter Senge said “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed."

People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.
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Perhaps the following story from my own experience illustrates this well. A few years ago I was helping an organisation to adopt self-managed practices across the business. They explicitly asked for this and believed it was the way forward, but after having been told to ‘adopt Holacracy’ or ‘move to Agile’ about 1,000 times, they started to feel allergic to these recommendations, like they were being preached to a new religion to convert to. They sensed the dogmatic irony that no matter the question, the answer is ‘Agile’ (in that static, not-very-agile sense of the word).

And so we decided we’d start with where they were, with a series of tiny nudges. So we invited the whole company to a voluntary workshop. Sat in a circle we started by asking them ‘what do you most want to change here?’. They filled their laps with post-it notes and we then asked a brave person to share in the open. Eventually a fearful volunteer did, fearful of expressing their discontent in front of everybody. They placed their post-it in the middle of the circle and we asked for everybody with the same post-it to come forward. 20 people stood up and we all laughed. 10mins later we had reduced 50 people’s full laps of fear into just 5 common areas. Maybe a problem shared is indeed a problem halved.

But it’s what happened next that was interesting… We gave everybody the opportunity, if they wanted to, to volunteer some energy into changing the area they felt most passionate about changing with tiny experiments. One was so simple and yet proved remarkably effective and it has become a sort of fable for me. One group wanted to breakdown silos (the most common of organisational qualms) and so decided the tiniest of experiments: to ask people to switch seats one day per week. And so they did. Except that they encountered a problem: the desk telephones couldn’t follow them to their new seats. Not to worry, they decided to forward their desk phones to their mobiles. A couple of weeks later though and with their new found flexibility, they tried working from home, changing the remote work policy in the process. Good remote working requires using more open, transparent and collaborative tools though, so we helped them with that. The new openness and physical distance though exposed deeper cultural beliefs, like trust. In particular, it made man-management difficult, affording new freedom and so afforded new trust to people. And so on and so forth. Gradually things changed.

Changing seats, meant changing phones, meant working from home, meant changing policies, meant improving tech, meant changing leadership style. Last time I had heard their management meetings were open for all to attend and they’d gone some way to become transparent about most topics including finances. And much of this because of similar tiny experiments like changing seats…

I tell this story like a simplified fable but nonetheless, it carries a lot of truth. Mainly it shows a risk free, non-controlling approach to a complex system. The result could not have been predicted. Any enforced policies would have been like alien organs rejected by the system. What was needed was a little tickle that would ripple. What would happen was unknown to us all. And that is how systems work. They are constantly changing. Some tiny things have huge effects (positively or negatively), others do not. And this brings me back to the butterflies.

During the 1950s, the famous meteorologist Edward Lorenz accidentally stumbled upon the idea that a tiny tiny mathematical error could lead to huge changes in a system. To explain this in layman’s terms he proposed by way of metaphor that a single flap of a butterfly's wings could trigger changes in the weather. This has rightly or wrongly become mixed with the idea that we must look for small levers over big systems. Regardless, coming back to our scope of interest, what seems true is that an organisation is too complex a system to predict and therefore too complex to attempt to exert top down, central, sudden, ‘disruptive’, ’transformative’ control over.

The 21st century is the wrong time to be a control freak.
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In attempting huge ’transformation’ projects, we perhaps run the risk of playing god. Implementing intelligent design over a complex system under the delusion that we know exactly how it will end up. In an era described as ’scientifically chaotic’, this seems like madness. As I once heard “the 21st century is the wrong time to be a control freak”. In the absence of knowing what is to come, perhaps the most intelligent thing we can do is to continuously tickle the system, observing how it reacts as we go along. A beautiful metaphor for this can be found in Robert Moore’s beautiful book On Trails where he explains this interesting experiment in Japan:

“When researchers tasked a slime mold with connecting a series of oat clusters mirroring the location of the major population centers surrounding Tokyo, the slime mold effectively re-created the layout of the city’s railway system. Linger a moment over that fact: A single-celled organism can design a railway system just as adroitly as Japan’s top engineers.”

And so, I am currently trying my best to balance my quasi religious fervour for new organisational paradigms with the new found humility that if a slime mould is just as good at designing railway system as top engineers, who I am to think I can predict the ’transformation’ of a complex organisation. My job perhaps is to simply lay down the oat clusters, observe the organisms intelligence do its thing and then react accordingly. Leaving ‘disruption’ to an absolute minimum.

This guest blog is written by Jon Barnes. Jon is an organisational change consultant helping companies and teams to self-organise. He is the author of two books Democracy Squared and Tech-Monopolies and has spoken at TEDx about digital democracy and democratic education. You can find out more about him, watch his talks, and explore his Online Course for Organisational Activists on his website at http://jonbarnes.me

Written by Pim de Morree
Pim de Morree
As co-founder of Corporate Rebels I focus on: researching, writing, speaking, and building our company.
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