Organization Change: the ‘Organic’ POV

In times of dramatic change and crisis, executives (perhaps in line with human nature) revert to known formulas .. tapping structured, controlled and seemingly “safe “solutions. In Stephen Billing’s blog “Organizational Change is Not a Relay Race” he warns against relying on formal & rigid decision processes in times of crisis. Most dangerous: hand-offs between executives, consultants and HR .. passing the baton of responsibility from runner to runner.

We’ve all seen this happen. If you’re leading an organization in crisis, it is no time for hand-offs. It introduces delay, dilutes both message content and ‘signal strength’ .. and in the end, serves to diminish trust. But to really get at the core of the disconnect, we need to understand how change works.

I frame the issue as two contrasting views: the organization as machine vs. the organization as living organism.

In the latter view, change brings in an organic element. Transformations take place in every cell.  Granted, there are communication and control processes present in the organism too; each cell plays a vital role, as in a machine.  But in a living organism, just as within an organization, success (survival and adaptation) depend on symbiotic adjustments from every minute part of the system.

No doubt the industrial age has influenced the thinking of executive management.  But we must now choose our relational paradigms more carefully, especially at times of crisis when time is short and emotions are running high.

Machines excel at repetition. Living organisms excel at change.

Take a good look, there’s plenty of change and crisis to go around.  What kind of organization do you need to be?

3 thoughts on “Organization Change: the ‘Organic’ POV

  1. Thanks for the mention of my article Chris. You identify two metaphors for organisation – machine or living organism. Both are systems views – i.e. the organisation is either a mechanical system or a living system. In systems, the parts are understood in relation to each other and the function they play for the whole that they make up. Thus in a living system, you might have the trunk, roots, branches and leaves of a tree interacting with the environment through photosynthesis.

    The big difference between an organisation and any system, whether mechanical or living, is that those in an organisation are human beings, with human consciousness and the ability to choose. The parts in a system do not have either human consciousness or choice. So any sort of systems analogy for an organisation is limited in its usefulness.

    I have had much more success by thinking of an organisation as population-wide patterns of self-organising interaction arising from myriad interactions amongst organisation members. These patterns can be stable or changing, depending on a number of factors, one of the most important of which is the diversity of the members who are interacting, but power relations, gossip, ideologies and politics all have a part to play. There is no place for these things in systems thinking, and that is one of the reasons any kind of systems analogy is not that useful.

    Regards, Stephen Billing,

  2. Norman L. Johnson has developed a great model for leadership and change in organizations. A successful strategy for an organization depends entirely on the state of its environment or ecosystem. In a period of rapid innovation or change, an organization must experiment, learn and adapt quickly. In a stable ecosystem, the best survival strategy is to become as efficient as possible. Hierarchy and command-n-control works quite well in the latter case. It’s disastrous in the former. Unfortunately most of the management theory taught in business schools was developed in the 50s and 60s, largely times of slow change for most businesses. The training and instincts of our leaders tells them to tighten the reins in times of change, when that just might be the time to open things up for maleable learning and growth!

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