Organizing for Change and
The Search For Intelligent Life

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

I remember youthful fascination with the patterns of runoff water from the summer rains. Light rains were best, when a small finger of water emerged from the roof down spout. If you kept moving you could race with the front of the growing stream as it broke new pathways through the dry dirt, branching and rejoining, creating islands and pools - trying to find its way to the Mississippi. I was watching the ancient formation of the earth unfold. Upstream the waters deepened, swamping the early islands and joining the branches into a single determined stream. But at the front there was magic, where water met dry earth for the first time, where tentative fingers and branches tested ways around obstacles, where all kinds of flotsam went along for the ride - and me right with them - jumping from one caught in the backwaters to ride one on the advancing front. Powerful images in a youthful mind.
    As I grew older I was taught the importance of getting organized: to stabilize my immediate environment and bring order out of chaos. To sink roots and take stands. To choose a career, get an education, and join a company with a good retirement plan. To drop an anchor in the chaotic stream of life. I'm old enough now to remember when that was actually good advice.
    Dropping an anchor now is like camping on one of those temporary runoff islands that's about to be swamped. Getting organized, though, is still good advice, especially if you don't want to get caught in the backwaters. But we must organize differently today: we must organize for change rather than stability.
    In the August '96 issue of Wired magazine, revered business sage Peter Drucker tells us: "Big companies have no future....By and large there are no more advantages to big business. There are only disadvantages....In fact, today's big business is in such turbulence and crisis that it isn't even a model for business [let alone government]." After taking top management to task for "unconscionable greed" and outright "cruelty" in the downsizing process, he comments on global differences in business restructuring: "In this country, the restructuring has caused amazingly few social problems because our labor force is so mobile, so adaptable. Our disorder is a great advantage. The Germans and the Japanese are programmed for order - and it gets in their way." On the future of organizational structures, he offers: "The model for management we have right now is the opera....The soloists, the chorus, the ballet, the orchestra, all have to come together - but they have a common score. What we are increasingly talking about today are diversified groups that have to write the score while they perform. What you need now is a good jazz group."
    Wired magazine is fast becoming my favorite business publication. In its April '96 issue the University of Michigan's Karl Weick, Professor of Organizational Behavior and Psychology discusses: "...why, in a wired world of constant change, chaotic action is preferable to orderly inaction." He offers: "..there's no more middle management; and midsize organizations really don't exist anymore. More importantly, there'll be a lot of chronic ambiguity. For instance, many organizations have stopped publishing organizational charts because they become obsolete the day they get circulated....If you take chaos theory seriously, it asserts that the world is both unknowable and unpredictable. All you can do is engage in transient moments of sensemaking." He then relates a story about a labor strike in outer space. "Back in 1973, the third Skylab crew had a tight schedule of experiments to run. NASA kept leaning on them to take on more experiments. The crew got more behind, more overloaded, so it turned off the microphone for 24 hours and spent some time reading and looking out the window. This says something about how
companies blend control and autonomy. People are better able to get complex assignments done when given more discretion within a framework of common values."
    That "framework of common values" was what I called the "Enterprise Mandelbrot" in last month's essay. Whether it's Drucker seeing the demise of big business or Weick seeing the end of midsize business, these and other wise man believe that the future of organizational structures is based on small, interacting, self-organizing, autonomous units, sharing a common framework that facilitates reconfiguration and adaptation. And it doesn't matter if we are talking about top-level corporate structure or looking inside at functional subdivisions, the concept of loosely coupled interacting modules reconfigurable within a framework is the central design attribute that brings adaptability (
Mar 95).
    You can employ this reconfigurable framework/module concept just as fruitfully in the design of adaptable production processes, upgradable products, responsive supply chains, flexible distribution logistics, high performance teams, evolving information systems, adaptable procedures, reconfigurable facilities, and any other aspect of business that must thrive in a constantly changing environment.
    In the last 24 essays here we explored ways to define, measure, and value change proficiency in the business world; establishing a basis for prioritizing improvement strategies. With this we open a new series that will explore ways to build highly change-proficient business elements; seeking a design basis for implementing improvement strategies.
    Each month we will look individually at a different element of business, attempting to identify framework/module concepts in actual practice where high change proficiency is evident. We will benchmark the best examples we can find in both production and service oriented companies. In the end we will attempt to verify a common set of design principles.
    You can read about it here as the trek unfolds, or you can participate in a variety of ways: suggest some good cases for us to examine, comment on the cases we display, or sign-up for a site team and help us identify and analyze the observations. Email interaction is preferred, but the phone also works.
    Our current plan, always subject to change of course, is to range across twelve business elements: 1) Organization Structures, 2) People Relationships, 3) Procedures, 4) Information Systems, 5) Control Systems, 6) Facilities, 7) Material Transport, 8) Production Processes, 9) Product/Service Architectures, 10) Customer Relationships, 11) Supplier Relationships, and 12) Distribution Logistics.
In each case we will be looking for the framework/module demarcation, suspecting that the secret to adaptable systems is in minimizing framework constraints and maximizing self-organization among modules. And we suspect that self organizing modules have their own interaction rules, perhaps even their own dreams and aspirations.
    Ebon Fisher, meme breeder, artist, and curator, has some very cogent representations for self organizing interactions. In a past essay (
Dec 95) I postulated ten principles that underlie highly adaptable systems; and have borrowed, with permission, ten representations that approximate these principles. Perhaps when we are done with our upcoming exploration we will refine these principles and engage Mr. Fisher to depict them more directly. My apologies to the artist for the loss of graphic resolution in creating the accompanying montage from his web site screen images, as well as for the self-serving caption on the left of the figure.

1996-1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #025 - Originally Published 11/96 in Automotive Production, Gardner Publications - Revised 9/97

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