zen01My post the other day on Chaos and Complexity led me into a client conversation about organizational change.  This in turn reminded me of an article I had published back in 1996 in Hewlett-Packard’s Perspectives magazine.  I’ve also said before that occasionally I will dig into one or more of my passions and hobby’s (music, scuba, motorcycling) and relate this back to the work and transformation of IT organizations.  Anyway, I dug out a copy of the original article, have done a minor update, and include it here as today’s post.

In his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” (a book that has had enormous influence on my approach to work and life), Robert Pirsig used a motorcycle as a metaphor to explore philosophy, quality, and the meaning of life.  I’d like to extend the metaphor to examine the nature of organizational change, and discuss why conventional change-management wisdom (which mostly surfaced in the last century) when applied to today’s complex organizational context may lead you dangerously off course.

The motorcycle is, of course, a machine.  It’s constructed from components, assemblies and sub-assemblies. Power is generated in an internal combustion engine (typically, although there are electric-powered motorcycles, and even one powered by a helicopter jet engine – famously owned and ridden by Jay Leno), transferred through gears, cogs and chains.  We can understand this classic machine by describing its parts and how they fit together.  The motorcycle behaves according to simple laws of Newtonian mechanics.  If you want to turn left, you steer to the left. That is, until you reach a certain speed.  Above about 10 mph, (depending upon the size and geometry of the motorcycle) something strange happens.  If you want to turn left, you steer right!  Above a certain speed, what looks like a simple machine operating according to predictable laws becomes a complex set of interacting systems that behave neither linearly nor intuitively.

And this is the problem with conventional change management wisdom.  In the early and mid-industrial revolution, organizations were relatively simple and stable systems.  They did behave somewhat linearly.  Like machines, they were divided into functions and sub-functions.  Strategy was formulated at the top, work performed at the bottom, with middle management interpreting between the executives and workers,  smoothly transferring power and information up and down the organization, like cogs and chains.  Line folk did the work and staff handled control and support functions.  You can see this view reflected in the mechanistic methods for organizational change that were popularized by researchers such as Kurt Lewin.

If you want small changes, the conventional wisdom held, then do incremental things at the lower parts of the organization. Large change required radical interventions at higher levels.  Even the traditional language of change speaks of ‘unfreezing’, ‘refreezing’, and of ‘resistance’, as if describing a rusty or gummed up machine.

As information and knowledge replace minerals and machinery as industry’s fuel, however, organizations are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic.  As with the motorcycle, the intuitive way you steered the organization in simpler times no longer works.  Small interventions, such as 6 Sigma or Lean Manufacturing, can lead to massive change.  Large interventions, such as business process re-engineering and restructuring often fail completely, as the organization springs back to its original form like a motorcycle fork spring rebounding from a pothole.

Back to the motorcycle and the phenomenon called countersteering.  Most motorcyclists don’t even know this is happening unless they have been trained to use counter-steering to avoid becoming road kill.  So why aren’t they constantly careening off the road?  Under normal conditions, this counter-steering effect is very subtle.  Ask a biker how he steers and he will say, “I lean.”  The reality is, the only way to lean at anything above parking-lot speeds (unless you are racing and prepared to hang off the side of the motorcycle – not recommended for street riding) is by applying subtle pressure to the handlebars in the direction opposite the intended turn.  The biker can get by for years doing this unconsciously – until there is an emergency, and the hapless biker who doesn’t understand countersteering, is unable to turn sufficiently quickly to avoid the hazard.  And so it is with managing change.  Doing what seems intuitive gets you by until organizational complexity, or ambiguity of the change reach a certain pitch.  The “nuke the process, take no prisoners” re-engineering approach fails miserably and expensively because it assumes machine-like organizational qualities.  Those managing change in today’s dynamic organizations must discard the conventional wisdom.  They must forget mechanistic images of the organization, recognize the inherent complexities, and draw instead from the sciences of chaos, complexity and ecology.  For example, chaos with its ‘strange attractors‘ explains why major interventions may lead to little or no change, while small changes can produce radical results – the so-called ‘butterfly effect.’

By approaching organizations as complex, living organisms, rather than as machines, managers recognize that they can’t predict the outcome to any given intervention.  As such, informed managers approach their change tasks in a more incremental, holistic and organic fashion, and realize that they aren’t really managing change in the conventional sense of the word.  They are more sensitive to the complex interactions between systems, and use whole systems approaches that get as many stakeholders involved in the change as possible.  Shared Vision and values become the ‘genetic code’ that shapes behavior throughout the organization, rather than detailed change designs engineered from above.  Information becomes a source or both order and creativity.

While the mechanistic approach treats work structures as permanent, and transition structures as temporary (pilot projects, change teams, and so on) the organic approach has fluid work structures (teams, self-organizing networks) and permanent transition-support structures (social networks, communities of interest).

Chaos sensitizes us to look for patterns rather than rules. If motorcycle steering reverses at a certain speed, we should expect to find other examples of non-linearity in control systems.  We find it in supersonic flight where initial attempts resulted in mysterious crashes – until someone figured out the different control dynamics as you break the sound barrier.  In Pirsig’s words, “Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight.”  It’s good for seeing where you’ve been.  It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.

There are other change-management lessons to draw from motorcycles.  The safest way to corner on a motorcycle is to counter-steer into the turn and then gradually open the throttle through the turn.  Constant throttle, or even worse, reducing the throttle in a turn (the intuitive thing to do) leads to wobbling, and an unfortunate tendency to leave the road.  This is explained by paraphrasing Newton’s first law – changing direction requires energy.  If the energy is not replaced by opening the throttle, the speed of the bike drops, the lean angle changes, and the bike becomes unstable.  Similarly, organizational change requires additional energy.  Rarely, however, do managers budget the extra time and resources needed for the change.  People are expected to do their normal workload, plus assimilate change – a recipe for frustration and failure.

Managers can learn a lot from motorcycles – particularly if they recognize the trap of treating organizations mechanistically and look instead to chaos, complexity theory and ecology as a source of change-management wisdom.