Change: The leader’s ability to improve an organization through change and growth

“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be …this in turn means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking.” ~ Isaac Asimov

If you have read my Start Here page (if you haven’t already what are you waiting for), you will have seen that the definition I use of leadership is inspired by the US Army.

Considered by many as the world’s greatest leadership organization – both Peter Drucker and Jack Welch concurred – the US Army has 3 components to its definition of leadership:

• influence: providing inspiration and direction through a leader’s character
• accomplishing the mission: through a leaders’ competence
• improving the organization: through a leader’s ability to guide and direct growth through change

Let’s look at that third component in more detail: change.

It’s important for leaders to understand the true nature of change. “Growth is recurring change,” writes author and professor Edward Hess in his book The Physics of Business Growth. The implication for leaders is that to improve the organization, to help it grow, you need to direct and embrace change.

But growth, healthy and sustainable growth, requires a different approach than just executing the mission. It requires a mindset that understands and embraces deeper notions:

– we live in a volatile and uncertain world
– we need to think not in linear, mechanistic ways but learn from natural world
– to understand this world we need to upgrade our thinking and embrace systems

Let’s explore these deeper concepts of what it takes for a leader to improve your organization.

Living in a VUCA world

“We are now in the midst of a threshold decade: our natural, business, organizational, and social systems will reach tipping points of extreme challenge, and some of those systems are likely to break. However, such disruption can spark new opportunities.” – Bob Johansen

Business leaders are traditionally not good at dealing with change. Change is thought of as unfortunate external condition that has to be reluctantly dealt with. Leaders will initiate “change management” projects in the effort to get a handle on new challenges to an organization. These initiatives often fail not because of faulty execution but because of the lack of understanding of the worldview that produces this change.

“Why does change itself, that event we’re all supposed to be “managing,” keep drowning us, relentlessly making us feel less capable and more confused?” – Margaret Wheatley

Change had become pervasive and rapid. Making sense and leading in this uncertain world has become increasing difficult. The US military understood these challenges in the 1990s creating the acronym VUCA to explain these conditions:

• Volatility – a rapidly changeable and explosive environment
• Uncertainty – filled with doubt and unpredictability
• Complexity – that creates complicated situations involving an arrangement of many parts
• Ambiguity – which result in unclear meaning and understanding

What started in the US Army War College was later popularized by Bob Johansen in his book, Leaders Make the Future. He addresses the challenges for leaders to think, act and influence in this environment. Johansen warns us that it will get worse in the future, there will be both opportunities and danger and that leaders must learn new skills.

Learning from Natural World (and the New Science)

In addition to learning new skills, leaders need to learn from new sources. The natural world and the “new science,” includes biology, quantum physics, chaos theory and self-organizing systems. These fields provide fascinating insights into the world of change for individuals and organizations.

Margaret Wheatley, in her book Leadership and the New Science encourages us to “see the world a new” when it comes to our work environments. She writes that we work in “organizations designed from Newtonian images of the universe. We manage by separating things into parts, we believe that influence occurs as a direct result of force exerted from one person to another, we engage in complex planning for a world that we keep expecting to be predictable …”

Instead of a world of 17th century physics and its mechanistic implications there is a “new science.” “This was the world where order and change, autonomy and control were not the great opposites that we had thought them to be”, where change and constant creation are “ways of sustaining order and capacity.”

Systems Thinking

We find out that the concept of change in living systems is influenced by several important paradoxes:

– “Change is prompted only when an organism decides that changing is the only way to maintain itself.”
– “Each being is noticeable as a separate entity, yet it is simultaneously part of a whole system”
– From chemistry we learn, paradoxically, “that disorder can be the source of new order.” Nobel Prize winner Ilya Prigogine introduced the concept of “dissipative structures” where “anything that disturbs the system plays a crucial role in helping it self-organize into a new former of order.”

This is a strange and new type of thinking for us modern leaders. We cannot trust nature’s own “processes for growth and rejuvenation.” We feel change cannot happen unless we are in control. We are surprised to learn of life’s ability to create and regenerate itself.

As business leaders we recognize that most change projects fail. It is hard ‘changing’ process and relations among people. But perhaps we should trust in the lessons that nature can provide for our organizational initiatives. Peter Senge writes that biology can teach us about “the growth and premature death of organization change initiatives.”

Senge explains that all growth in nature arises out of an interplay between reinforcing growth processes and limiting processes. In fact, he calls this inevitable interplay Dance of Change, which is also the title of his book.

Normally we business leaders focus solely on growth processes. Senge, however, highlights the importance of dealing with limits. “Growth in all natural systems occurs through an interplay of reinforcing process and limiting processes,” explain Senge.

“In nature, the power of limits determines the extent to which growth follows the path of acceleration. In organizational change, the power of limits similarly determine the extent to which pilot projects ever grow to realize significant impact. This is why effective leaders focus their attention on understanding and dealing with limits.

Embracing science and systems and can help us leaders understand and direct change, as we strive to improve our organizations and accomplish our missions.

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