Self Organising

As an officer cadet at The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, the thing I hated most was foot drill. Quite why we had to dress immaculately in order to rehearse moving in 18th Century battle formations on a parade ground was beyond me. It was also beyond most of the drill sergeants, but they knew it worked and they were good at it, so on we marched. What foot drill actually did was connect us into one cohesive body of men, all acting thinking and (on good days) flowing as one. It also connected us into the tradition and ritual of the British Army. We weren’t the best-equipped army in the world, but were fiercely proud of our history and traditions. That had counted for a lot during several centuries of ugly scrapes.

Large organisations don’t always pay as much attention to formally reinforcing ritual and tradition as the British Army does. Most no longer retain marching bands, wear uniforms, carry flags and repeat formal rituals and ceremonies. Yet these things pervade in the informal networks of large companies, in their language, working patterns and even buildings. Our identity is inevitably shaped by our history. The changes we have been through to arrive where we are now determine our form in the world. They also determine how we make sense of our environment and react to new situations.

This self referencing behaviour is one of our Big Five and is entirely consistent with a view of organisations as living things. Living things act to preserve their identity. Sometimes, preserving this identity may mean swiftly changing. But as evolutionary biologists, pointed out, when you disturb a living thing, it usually acts to remove the source of the disturbance. This works from single cellular organisms to eco-systems. The response to a perturbing stimulus is to attempt to absorb it and excrete the waste. This is bad news for change agents in organisations. It may explain why so often, an external agent who can afford to take the risk of being ‘killed’ by the organism is needed to carry through the change process. Leading change in organisations can result in much reduced chances of survival for an individual in an organisation, even when it is the CEO leading the change.

Because organisations are self referencing, they have a strong tendency to mitigate change. Sometimes this can be overt displays of power and strength. A union negotiating against new practices through calling on its members to withdraw their labour can be a raw and brutal process. More often it is much more subtle, certainly less confrontational, probably unconscious and therefore unintended. We’ve all seen processes where people are keen to join the change team but can’t quite make the time to attend all the meetings. They don’t really take the actions necessary to make things different and slowly, over time, the change effort runs into the sand. Most change processes, at best, end up recreating new and improved versions of what we already do. Few are truly transformational. Most transformation is driven by significant variation in the external environment that threatens an organisation’s identity.

So being self-referencing, the past is used to shape the present, holding us in existing patterns. These patterns may have grown up for good reason, yet they may no longer serve us well. This is particularly apparent in the financial services sector. Financial services companies are prone to rapid fluctuation in their environment. Money markets go rapidly up and down, crashing at repeated intervals. Financial services companies are also responsible for the crashes; being living systems they are in symbiotic relationship with the world around them. The money markets are as they are because of the way these companies behave. And these companies behave as they do because that’s how the money markets are. None the less, if you probe into the stories and beliefs that guide modern financial organisations, you will find their working practices shaped strongly by the dotcom crash of 1998 and the more recent crash in 2008. Even if the people working there weren’t around at those times, the culture pervades despite the comings and goings of individuals. It is reinforced by regulation, both internal and external.

So to grow change in a large organisation it is important to recognise the history by which the cultural practices of that organisation have formed. It is also vital to connect the organisation closely to its environment. If that connection is already strong and real then most likely, any change process is unlikely to add much. It says more about the ego of the instigator than the needs of the organisation, and is almost certainly doomed to bitter failure. By surfacing any contradiction between what the organisation (or people in it) say they do, and what is actually experienced and needed in the environment, the change maker helps the organisation find the imperative for change.

This is at the heart of the art. Change cannot be manufactured from a plan to be different. The desire to change must be formed in a discomfort that arises when the self-referencing identity of the organisation is challenged by the new found reality of their circumstances. This is not simply about providing new data. It has to be felt, probably deeply, and is often profoundly disturbing before it is enlightening.

© John Atkinson (2016)