In transition


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The cosmos is a complex, and sometimes confusing, place.

Every three or four months, the planet Mercury goes retrograde. What this means is that if you track its movement in the sky, it will appear to move backwards for about 3 weeks and then it continues its forward course. In ancient Greece, the planets used to be seen as erratic and unpredictable relative to the stars, hence the word ‘planet’ (‘wanderer’). The ancient Greeks found ways to describe this retrograde motion that fit within the old geocentric view of the cosmos. They concocted mathematical descriptions to help them make sense of what they observed, given the evidence they had, but which are now seen as wrong. This bizarre planetary behaviour was not acknowledged to be an illusion until Copernicus suggested that it was a matter of perspective, i.e. it is the Sun that is the centre of the Solar System, not the Earth. Copernicus stated that the apparent retrograde motion of the planets arises not from their motion, but from the Earth’s. He resisted publishing his work because he did not wish to risk the scorn to which he would expose himself on account of the novelty and incomprehensibility of his theses, and even after being published, his ideas took quite some time to be generally accepted. Only over half a century later with the work of Kepler and Galileo did the first evidence appear that backed his theory. Not until after Newton, over 150 years after Copernicus, did the heliocentric view become mainstream. Who would now maintain that the Earth is the centre of everything?

Technology had a part to play in this shift in perception. The impact the telescope had on science was profound. Amazing how, when things are seen differently, whole mindsets shift. If we look at the night sky with the naked eye and observe Orion’s belt, we will see three stars: Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. If, however, I look through a different lens (specifically, a telescope), I can tell you that Mintaka is, in fact, two stars. Faced with this information, you could

  • reject what I say because you’ve always known that Orion’s Belt consists of three stars and that’s just the way it is
  • suspend your belief and try to get your hands on a lens like mine so you could check it out yourself
  • accept what I say and simply update your thinking

Viewing something through a new lens can cause a stir. Galileo and his telescope provided us with so much new information that we had to update our thinking and beliefs about the cosmos. Something similar is going on in the world right now. Many beliefs about the business of business are being stretched. It seems that most businesses are still holding on to outdated ideas, despite information now available which challenges these ideas.

Our world is a complex system within a wider complex system of the cosmos. It is not a linear or mechanical place. It is not a bunch of unconnected bits and pieces. This is not new, but the implications of this have been subjugated by a more dominant perspective; that of mechanism. Because we have inherited a reductionist, mechanical view of things from the Industrial Revolution, we struggle to see the world through the lens of complexity. It is hard to under-estimate the impact that the Industrial Revolution has had on us because we are surrounded by it. Our educational systems, our economic systems, our financial systems have all been shaped by this worldview. The Earth is not a machine and we urgently need to stop treating it like one. If a machine breaks down, we look for the part that is malfunctioning and fix or replace it. The world does not work like that.

Business does not work like that either, much as some would believe.

I was recently in a meeting where someone was describing how their business works while drawing an organisational tree diagram on a whiteboard. As I watched and listened, it was like watching TV while listening to my iPod. What I saw and what I heard did not match. I suspect there are many businesses like this. They have a hierarchical tree diagram to illustrate lines of reporting (or the way things are supposed to be), but lines of accountability and decision-making were pulling towards a more networked reality. The dissonance between the old thinking and the new more effective thinking is beginning to wake people up to the fact that something has to change. I have advocated for more diffuse power structures in organisations and to me, it seemed like that is what is occurring quite naturally in this particular business. This makes sense to me, as systems are naturally self-organising. The HR person present at this meeting piped up, “Of course, the informal structures and relationships are what really make things happen here,” and I was left bewildered why this business, which is in the midst of a significant transformation to a flatter and more cooperative way of working, would try to shoe-horn this far more effective organisational process into an outdated organisational structure.

When we are in a transition from one state to another, we cling on to what we know. We are prisoners of the familiar. The “new” is sometimes so new that we don’t have the language to describe it accurately. As we transition from a world of results-orientation, cause-and-effect, predictability, silos and planning to one of continuous improvement, complexity, ambiguity, cooperation and emergent design, we are in a quandary as to how to articulate where we are headed without giving the impression that it’s just a jazzier version of where we left. It’s not. Often, for example, when I try to describe what I do and how I do it, I sense that people are hanging my description onto what they currently know about learning and organisational transformation. “Oh, I see, you do leadership training.” “I get it, you teach EQ.” “Hmm, you do role plays.” No, no and no. In command-and-control land (and still infected by the Mechanism Virus), people, understandably, will not get what I’m talking about. When I talk about managers re-visioning their function from Doer-in-Chief to Systems Stewards, I mean it; it’s not just semantics. It’s part of a sea change in the whole view of what makes work work.

We live in networked times, this is true. Now, more than ever, business is about relationship. There is a shift in mindset required in order to really do business effectively. I believe it is happening now. We are right in the middle of it. Work is not what it was and will never be that way again.

Harold Jarche uses the metaphor of the blind men describing an elephant, writing that “we are blind men unable to understand the new realities of work”. He goes on to suggest that tearing down the “artificial disciplinary walls” that we have erected out of our now useless mechanistic mindset would be a good place to start growing better functioning organisations. I tend to agree with him. Sticking with outdated models and trying to manipulate them to do something that they actually cannot do is a waste of our energy. We live in networked times and the tensions that this has created on our antiquated structures are revealing them to be increasingly irrelevant. As Jarche states, with a networked, cooperative mindset, it is possible.

We need to re-imagine how we do HR. No more treating humans as a resource to be managed. We now know more than enough about human motivation, group dynamics and psychology to deserve something radically different in how people are treated.

We need to re-imagine how we do professional development. No dull, lifeless training seminars that few pay attention to and in which fewer actually learn something useful. The 70/20/10 rule of thumb is far more reflective of the reality of work. Some serious thought should be given to that ‘formal 10%’ component too: I believe it is far more beneficial to modern business to attend formal learning events that generate real, significant and long-lasting shifts in perceptions and develops the users of the “tools”, not merely adding tips and information to a “tool-kit”.

We need to re-imagine how we do workplace relationships. No more power games. No more silos. In a social economy, social skills are vital. We need to develop greater self-awareness and compassion for others. Caring and compassion are not things to learn about; they are essential capabilities we need to learn.

We need to re-imagine how we do customer service. No bland corporate speak. No making excuses for poor service. No gamification to tart up a dull, lifeless product. What’s wrong with developing some good interpersonal capabilities and growing real relationship with customers?

We need to re-imagine what leadership means. It’s not about booting out the old CEO and replacing him (it’s usually a him) with someone who operates out of the same mindset. It’s not about a change of leadership style. It’s about a root-and-branch transformation of what leadership actually means.

As Russell Ackoff stated, “Thinking systemically also requires several shifts in perception, which lead in turn to different ways to teach and different ways to organise society.” How long till the old illusions disappear and the new mindset becomes mainstream? What will it take?

Republished with author's permission from original post.

John Wenger
John Wenger is one of the Directors of Quantum Shift. He has a background in education, counselling and management of commercial and not-for-profit organisations. He brings a passion and understanding of learning and human behaviour to his current work in organisational learning and development. He has a particular interest in uncovering solutions which get people to be less stuck and more creative in their workplaces.


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