the cost of change

It’s a common belief that the ability to change, and to accommodate change, is a sign of life. And, among sentient, self-aware beings, it’s also reasonable and normal to invoke change for the purpose of stimulating the presence of those attributes of life that follow on from change.

Here are some strong words about that from an organizational theorist who contends that organizations that don’t experience change will perish. If change does not come from without, it had better come from within. And, it must be significant to have the desired life-sustaining affect.

Self-renewal of an organization can be seen as a process of dissolving an existing organizational order and creating a new one. Order in an organization refers to the structure and cognitive order which affects the pattern of the members of the organizational activities, namely, the pattern of resource deployment, organizational structure, systems, processes, and cultures. There can be no renewal without dissolution and creation of order. (Ikujiro Nonaka, 1988, “Creating Organizational Order Out of Chaos: Self-renewal in Japanese Firms“)

Contrary to the above, and as a rule in fiscally conservative organizations, change must come incrementally, in tested steps, like evolution. Leaders don’t make big decisions; they support change that bubbles up from below. This approach naturally inhibits the tendency of organizations to expand with untested ideas, which usually amount to increased on-going costs – the curse of large organizations, especially government.

The darn thing is that that there are times that abrupt, leadership-invoked change is the only way because incremental change is like sweeping main street. You simply have to dig it up and pave it instead of planning to clean up the on-going mess as a part of the change process.

The problem is that conservative business organizations are, by necessity, risk-averse, and are so accustomed to not providing change leadership that the very idea of making a significant abrupt change decision freezes their blood. They’re quite suspicious of suggestions about such things and believe the only permissible agents of abrupt change are necessarily external to the organization – whether customers, market forces or natural calamities.

The bottom line is that the fear of costly mistakes  associated with abrupt, enforced change is often misplaced. Incremental change can be just as costly because of the constant refactoring of ideas to win approval and the wasteful diversion of energy into winning support instead of actually rendering the change – not to mention the on-going costs of holding onto the original problems until solutions are fully evolved.



the balanced triangle

Let’s say you’re at work and you’re thinking about what you’re expected to do, what you’re allowed to do, and what you can do. You might tend to think in terms of a balance of two factors, organizational control versus your autonomy. You’re empowered to decide certain things and not others; you  operate on your own in enough situations to get stuff done.

Well, there’s a third factor to consider when thinking about what you can and can’t do, the third apex of the balanced triangle: teamwork.

Teamwork is significant because it makes individuals capable of what several people can do. Everyone has access to team members who adopt others’ problems as a part of their jobs. It could be little things, such as covering the take-out window for a few minutes; or something weightier, such as sharing experience with a complex business solution.

Getting back to the triangle: you can learn useful things about an organization by examining it with respect to its balance point in the control/autonomy/teamwork triangle. This thinking applies equally to large and small groups, with widely varying results possible across a single organization, depending on which kinds of interactions and processes are examined, and when. The resultant triangular analysis is a behavioural model that is instructive to build and a great tool that informs change.

Robert Keidel, an organizational theorist and consultant, developed his triangular design in 1980, wrote a couple articles and a book about it, taught it, and applied it extensively.

References to Keidel’s work:

thinking about a lion skin for 15 years

I draw your attention to the title of the essential Canadian novel,  In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaajte (1987). The title is from a longer quotation, as adapted by Ondaatje from The Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh’s friend, Enkidu, died of an illness inflicted by the gods who had sent him to Gilgamesh in the first place. Shattered by the loss, he said,

The joyful will stoop with sorrow, and when you have gone to the earth I will let my hair grow long for your sake, I will wander through the wilderness in the skin of a lion.

I’ve been thinking about this since the book won the first Canada Reads award on CBC radio in 2002. I interpret it as having the flexibility to allow random possibilities in life to guide you, and to be more lion-like than lamb-like in your approach. The first part is a little less fun to think about, but it wouldn’t be the first time I sported a ponytail.

Another great thing about this book, is that it made me fall in love with Toronto. I would now live in downtown Toronto if I could figure out how to do it. Whereas, 40 years ago, I wouldn’t have given it a passing thought.

Another great thing about this book, is that it’s a great introduction to Michael Ondaatje. Whenever I think about wanting to write fiction (not including technical documents describing products that don’t work), the notion of competing for bookshelf space with this guy sends me right back to the IT industry. His almost casual genius produces very powerful prose and rich story lines. I’ve read all his novels, short stories and much of his poetry.

I wonder if it’s possible to find out what life is really like for a person like Ondaatje.