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 a managers want to do this regardless whether changes are necessary. Yet, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The joke for incoming manager/CEO is, “same tree, different monkey.” Real changes are of transformative nature where 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 seem to leave much unanswered and unsaid. 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 on my dissertation committee.
His work is incredibly thoughtful and thought provoking. This particular article helped me understand some of my disquiet 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 I will deliver in the next few weeks is my attempt to introduce to you some of the key concepts for thinking about changes, and apply them to some specific examples. Where 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 are essentially the same. The prime example is US government; new president, new Congress, etc. but essentially it has stayed the same. (If we get the feeling that the government has been getting worse, I would contend it’s because it doesn’t take much into consideration of its environment, i.e. societal development.) Hence the saying in the opening paragraph! And then, there is the kind of change that is the inevitable evolutionary steps sentient beings experience.
A duckling changes into a duck; or a lamb growing up to be a sheep, and no amount of hard work would make that lamb into a duck. Except if you fool around with genetic engineering, and in science fictions so far. Even a metamorphic transformation of pupa to butterfly has a 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 other kind of change that would alter 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, and the reasons are incredibly complicated. I am reminded of what Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.” (One of the several versions.)
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 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 for organizations, ranging from linearly delineated frame of functions and goals to loosely constructed sets of behaviors with shared meanings. Whether we see 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, 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 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 Mobius strip (please Google for images).
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.
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.
As usual, I like to take my time to lay out complicated issues and concepts. I will pick up the thread of using metaphors for managing changes 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.