Change: When is it metamorphic? And when is it an inevitable evolutionary step?

Whenever a new manager comes on board, she wants to make some “changes” to demonstrate that she is in charge and her ideas will bring something new and energize people under her changed structure.  Many managers want to do this regardless of whether changes are necessary.  Yet, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”  The joke about the incoming manager/CEO is, “same tree, different monkey.”  Real, transformative change in the core of being, be that an organization, a group, or a person, is fundamentally different.  How to assess changes, and/or, how to engineer changes is a deeply complicated enterprise, at least if we want to be serious and genuine about it.

Most articles and books on organizational changes used to make me want to search for something more; they seemed to leave much unsaid and unanswered.  Then, when I was in graduate school, I came across Kenwyn Smith’s article, “Philosophical Problems in Thinking About Changes,” in “Change In Organizations,” edited by Paul S. Goodman & Associates.  Kenwyn was my professor, and later became a member of my dissertation committee.  His work is incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking.  This particular article helped me understand some of the disquiet in my feelings, but oh my, the content is ever so dense.  I loved it, and have worked hard at it.  Till this day, I am still not sure if I totally get it, but I am pretty sure I get the tenor and the basic meaning.  What follows is my attempt to introduce to you some of the key concepts for thinking about changes, and apply them to some specific examples in the next entry.  While I may be fuzzy, I will be honest, and perhaps you can help me out.

I think most of us have witnessed and experienced some organizational changes that seem to make organizations look or operate differently but remain essentially the same.  The prime example is the US government; every few years we have a new president, new Congress, etc. but the essence of the government is independent judicial, executive, and bicameral legislative branches and remains the same.  (If we experience the feeling that the government has been getting worse, I would contend it’s because the comprising individuals become out-of-synch with their environment, i.e. societal development.)  Hence the saying in the opening paragraph!  And then, there is the kind of change that is the inevitable evolution each creature experiences.  A duckling changes into a duck, a lamb grows up to be a sheep, and no amount of hard work would make that lamb into a duck excluding somebody fooling around with genetic engineering.  Even the metamorphic transformation of caterpillar to butterfly has destiny (of being a butterfly) built in, and so the metaphoric usage in my tagline is disputable.  I’ll come back to the usage of metaphor later.  These types of changes are termed “morphostasis,” in Smith’s article.  The more radical kind of change that would requires or results from altering the genetic codes is termed “morphogenesis,” in which the changes will be reflected in all future generations.

Needless to say, most organizations do not engage in morphogenetic changes (except perhaps for the period of time in which the organization comes into being), and the reasons are incredibly complicated.  I am reminded of what Einstein said, one of several versions being “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”

Before we even try to grasp how an organization is changing, or how to change an organization, we need to understand what an organization is.  In general, we get the sense of what GM is, what the US government is, or what a hospital or a school is, as an organization.  But how do we configure it?  We can’t see it; we can’t touch it.  There are several definitions of organizations, ranging from a linearly delineated frame of functions and goals to loosely constructed sets of behaviors with shared meanings.  Whether we see the organization as a collective of people, buildings, machines, and assets, the naming of these elements does not lead to any specific organization. They all have these parts in common, but what separates GM from Ford?  Or, how do we tell Whole Foods from Walmart?  Products are the outcomes of organizing efforts, not the definition.  Smith offers this perspective:  Organization is the collective entity based on the relations among parts, AND, relations among relations.

So, as we cannot see or touch an organization, neither can we do so with relations.  We can only infer, such as, we can “see” the wind through the movement, like the fluttering of leaves.  How we talk about an organization is all about how we use language, and metaphor occupies a big role.  But you can probably already infer further that there are limitations here too, because the mind that gives rise to the notice of certain organization is the same source from which the choice of metaphor comes.  How we experience relationships then influences what metaphors we choose, and vice versa.  This begins to feel like a Möbius strip.

The examples Smith gives illustrate a further consideration.  “Snow blanketing the ground” borrows the image and various associations of the “blanket,” such as, security, snuggle, slumber, etc.  If instead of “blanketing,” it’s “sitting,” the sense immediately changes to a suffocating feeling, with all that corresponding weight pressing down us.  Using the same word, “blanket” in “the thick fog blanketed the city,” definitely does not suggest security or warmth.  What’s at play here is context, the context of the relationship, between snow and earth, between fog and city, between what we experience and what we then infer.  It’s based on system; it’s about relationship.

Fundamental to making changes is the need to either change the metaphor or the context in which the metaphor is embedded.  To change metaphor is about changing the descriptor; to change context, we totally alter the meanings attached to the descriptor.

We often use metaphors borrowed from military or mechanical contexts to describe organizations, such as “authority,” “subordinate-superior,” “hierarchy,” etc.  (Perhaps this results from ancestral memories where military considerations dominated our existence even before the dawn of civilization.)  Let’s for the moment focus on “superior-subordinate” categories.  They can get us into a muddle since most people at work can be both superior and subordinate at the same time:  The feelings attached to these labels concern taking orders, ignoring or subverting orders, and may reside in us simultaneously and cause tension.  If we choose not to “follow the order,” we risk being labeled “insubordinate,” which may be followed by reprimand or punishment.

Furthermore, when we are attached to certain metaphors, such as the above, it is difficult to surrender them to other choices that maybe more appropriate.  So, often instead of changing metaphors, we want to change the organization or the relationships to fit the metaphors.  Crazy?  If we adhere to the usage of military-like or mechanical metaphors, when a system shows wear or breaks down, we want to improve by better “mechanization” or “control” (such as with more rules and regulations), instead of coming up with more modern metaphorical terms to describe a set of relationships.  Should hospitals and schools run like a military regiment with efficiency as the focus?  Or, have we acknowledged these organizations as having responsibility for the (militarily antithetical) caring, nurturing, healing of bodies and souls?  It’s kind of like mapping (yes, evoking metaphor):  When valleys and rivers have changed, do you not redraw the map?  But in human organizations, we seem to want to change the rivers and valleys to fit the old map/metaphors.  Crazy!

Adding to this complexity is the layer of where we focus the change (the jargon is “level of analysis”), at the personal level, at the group level, further up all the way to the industry-wide level, level above the industry, etc.  Smith provides an example of the balance in the nature between rabbit population and lynx population, akin to two separate organizations.  When rabbits thrive, so do lynxes, but when lynxes start decimating the rabbit population, they suffer too.  If the rabbits start acquiring some new skills to avoid the lynx and pass down those skills to the following generations, then, lynx will suffer, but the explosion in rabbit population will hurt the rabbits.  If the lynx gets a few more IQ points and puts rabbits into extinction, it too will suffer.  There is a natural equilibrium (and oscillation) working in the nature.  We humans tend to mess with nature.  I’d conjecture that to some extent, the Rupert Murdoch enterprise presently in the limelight has gotten too big for its own good.  Something bad is likely to happen to it.  We shall see.

Of course, it is not often wise to advocate letting an organization perish; people’s lives and assets are at stake, to say the least.  This is where clinical analysis and reality clash.  However, I could argue that if managers work really caringly and logically (these aspects don’t always have to be incompatible), organizations may evolve and grow just fine.  And pigs will fly!

I am saving my favorite concept to the last:  NOT.  “Not” is the boundary between what it is and what it is not; again, notice it’s about the relationship.  As Smith states, “…for ‘not’ is at the center of all change.  Anything that is changing is in the process of becoming something it previously was not.  As it matures, it is no longer as it was.  …’Not,” however, is not a thing; it is a boundary that summarizes a relationship.  It ‘belongs’ neither to the entity (such as organization, my explanation) nor to what it is not.”  For example, GM and auto industry are not the same; GM is part of it, and its relationship with that environment is in essence in the “not” zone.  While GM possesses many characteristics that the auto industry has, it has its own entity and identity.  If we want to change either GM or the auto industry, we cannot change either one only; we need to attend to their relationships.  And we don’t change relationships in an on/off digital manner; we treat it as a continuous process, an analog form.  Yet, we cannot be forever doing process work without ending in sight; that’s where on/off digital frame comes in because it offers the boundary.  It bears a relationship to the Möbius-Strip.

An intriguing example, alcoholism, still has my head spinning at times.  An alcoholic treats the bottle as an object to be rid of, but as soon as he’s on the wagon, he has to get off in order to fight to get rid of that object again.  “Getting rid of the bottle” becomes the goal, and in keeping that goal alive, he has to constantly oscillate between bottle and no bottle.  The desire to drink gets conflated into the desire to get rid of the desire.  What the alcoholic neglects is the relationship between him and his own inner void/darkness (which we all possess) that he’s trying to drown, but which needs to be attended to continuously.  So it is with other forms of addiction; getting rid of the object (whatever form of the addiction) becomes a game itself, all wrapped in another form (a meta form?) of addiction.

This is not to say that all goals are futile.  However, haven’t you noticed that often when a huge group project is completed, the group is in a deflated and depressed mood?  Where is the next goal?  Haven’t we learned that some political leaders need perpetual revolution to maintain their legitimacy as, and even their definition of, “leader?” I am reminded of a comment made by one of my acquaintances in my study, “if I ever reach that ‘perfect’ design, I may as well die.”

May you never reach that perfection!  Attend to the journey, as my journey on change continues next week.

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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