Change: When is it a metamorphic one? And when is it an inevitable evolutionary step? — Part II
By ELENA YANG
“To make changes, we can 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.” — Kenwyn Smith
We often use metaphors borrowed from military context to describe organizations, such as “authority,” “subordinate-superior,” “hierarchy,” etc. 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 order, defying order, ignoring order, and may reside in us simultaneously and cause tension. If we choose not to “follow the order,” we will be labeled “insubordination,” 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 machine/military-like metaphors, when system shows tears or breaks down, we want to improve by better “mechanization” or “control” (such as more rules and regulations), instead of coming up with more human nature terms to describe a set of relationships. Should hospitals and schools run like military regiment with efficiency as the focus? Or, have we considered these organizations in terms of caring, nurturing, healing of bodies and souls? It’s kind of like mapping (yes, evoking metaphor): When valleys and rivers have changed somewhat, do you not retool 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 group level, further up all the way to consider industry, 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 lynx 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 explosive rabbit population will hurt its own feeding ground. If lynx gets a few more IQ points and put rabbits, with their new skill set, in extinction, it too will eventually suffer. There is a natural equilibrium (and oscillation) working in the nature. We humans tend to mess with nature.
Of course, it would be difficult to advocate letting an organization parish; 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 with no ending in sight; that’s where on/off digital frame comes in because it offers the boundary. As I said, it’s Mobius-Strip complicated.
An intriguing example, alcoholics, still has my head spinning at times. An alcoholic treats the bottle as an object to be rid off, but as soon as he’s on the wagon, he has to get off in order to fight to get rid off 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 deflated and depressed mood? Where is the next goal? Haven’t we learned that some political leaders need perpetual revolution to maintain their definition of “leader?” Mao Ze Dong comes to mind. I am reminded of a comment made by one of my acquaintances in my dissertation 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. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.