Change³ and Adaptive Organisations

Today, we are up against businesses that work out of a garage, take risks, operate in a nimble way, and have a different kind of energy and drive. Large incumbent companies that can’t create a similar kind of culture just won’t be able to compete. One of our rallying cries has been how do you create a 20,000-person start-up?

– Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS



Transformational change is hard. It’s easy to add something new to what already exists, but changing what’s already there is more difficult. And what do you do in a market, business, societal and environmental context that’s constantly changing? You could change everything and it might all be redundant in five years. It’s hard enough to navigate yourself in the midst of such deep, wide-reaching and unpredictable turmoil. Bringing hundreds or thousands of other people with you is much harder.

My perspective of transformational change starts with characteristics of change itself, structured into three separate layers.

(1) First level change is the day-to-day background change we’re used to – changing weather, people, projects, priorities. Adding something new, cancelling something else, picking and choosing from the menu of options in front of us. Time moves on, things change and we do stuff. As both organisations and individuals, we do this all the time.

(2) Second level change is transformational change. Unlike first level change, this is not just adding to or subtracting from what already exists, but fundamentally changing it to it’s core. This is deep change, fundamental change, structural change, transformative change. You’re changing what the thing really is, and this is no small thing to do – especially if you’re a large organisation. The hardest part of transformative change usually lies not the adoption of the new (which can be exciting and liberating), but in letting go of the old and familiar. Just like breaking up is much harder than falling in love.

(3) Third level change is continual or dynamic transformative change. Change, even transformational change, is not enough in a world in which everything’s changing. If the world is changing you have to change, and you have to keep changing as long as the world is changing. This is the question of what you want to change into. If you change into something static you might gain a few years, but sooner or later the world will pass you by again and so you’ll have to change again. So the goal is to change into something dynamic, with the fluidity and flexibility to meet, adapt to and exploit whatever comes at you.

The more you have to lose the more vulnerable you are. In a world of dynamic change you have to change dynamically too – it’s not enough to change once. Essentially you have to teach yourself, your team or your organisation how to change so that individually and together they can change again and again and again as the world changes around them.

The River Model of Dynamic Change

One dynamic model for thinking about organisational adaptation to continual change is that of a young, fresh and fast-flowing river system.

This model begins with the force that animates us – purpose. If you’re going to get people to organise in large numbers while remaining flexible enough to meet and exploit change, you’re going to have to have a good story – a clear, concise narrative of who you are, what you’re about and why you’re doing what you’re doing. And it better be a real story, underwritten by real shared values and demonstrated by real actions. There are no secrets safe from social media, so you’d better drink your own cool aid and eat your own dog food, or eventually you’re going to get found out.

Purpose is the reason we get out of bed and do what we do, giving us meaning and direction. At a collective or organisational level purpose helps form our identity and connects us to others who share a similar purpose. Purpose is the why that gives us a reason to be interested in the what and the how. The bigger, deeper and more ambitious the purpose, the more potential customers, readers, viewers, constituents, employees, partners, talent and other allies you can attract. Shared purpose based on core values and expressed in a simple and coherent narrative is what brings people together and focuses them. Good leaders tell good and inspirational stories.

Purpose, if you haven’t already guessed, is the gravity of our river system model of dynamic change. It’s not only the gap to be crossed and the distance between here and there – it is the very animating force that causes movement between here and there. But that journey is rarely a straight line, and must adapt to the reality of the second part of our model – the landscape.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”, says the Serenity Prayer most associated with 12-step programs. That wisdom essentially involves recognising the things that you can’t change, and thus have no choice but to adapt to and accept. If these unchangeable things stand between you and your purpose then you’ll have to go around them because you’re not going to go through them. This is your topography – the hard reality of the landscape through which you must move.

A good tool to help survey your landscape is PESTLE analysis (a systemic look at the Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental landscape facing you or your organisation). SWOT analysis is also useful, and a SWOT analysis of your PESTLE landscape is even better. But it would be a mistake to sit in an office reading reports, because that’s not where reality happens. The full picture is the human picture and that happens inside the heads of individuals. If you really want to know your landscape you have to actually get out there and talk to the people in it.

When doing all this research, reading, talking, listening, thinking and other analysis it’s very easy to focus on the negative (after all, you’re looking for the things you can’t change). But it’s not just the obstacles you’re looking for – you want to spot the opportunities too. A great way to do this is to adopt a Blue Ocean perspective, which trains you to identify and evaluate pools of untapped demand. After all, the flip side of unprecedented threat is also unprecedented opportunity and if you’re going to do a comprehensive survey of your landscape anyways, you may as well look for both.

The third and final part of the river system model of dynamic change is, of course, the water itself. A water molecule consists of an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The two hydrogen atoms stick tight to the oxygen atom, but interact more weakly with other hydrogen atoms, constantly connecting and letting go. It is this rapid and incessant series of connecting and letting go that gives water it’s fluidity and it’s ability to flow. Connect, let go; connect, let go; connect, let go – again and again and again, instantly adapting to whatever it meets.

Your customers, shareholders, employees, audience, constituents or other stakeholders together create your organisational identity – each has a part in your story. But each is also a real, actual and unique human being with their own internal life, free will and choice. Remember, you’re not just trying to change what these people think or do – you’re trying to make them much more responsive, flexible and adaptive, able to continually connect and let go and thus flow like water.

This is the world of Lean and Agile thinking and practice – the ideas and community of SCRUM masters, project owners, change agents and mindset coaches. Lean-Agile grew from the cutting edge software industry operating in the hyper-competitive realm of the internet – the red hot core of technological change. Grounded in KPIs and other performance metrics and loyally wedded to the interests of the end customer, Lean-Agile advocates small flat teams of equals, open to test, risk, failure, ideas and people and working incrementally and holistically in time-bound bursts, with each iteration being better than the last. It’s like AI for human beings – evolving performance rather than constructing it. And it comes from the flexibility of Lean-Agile teams.

An Adaptive Organisation

As change, in all its myriad forms, continues and accelerates we don’t just have to adapt, we have to adapt to adaptation. We don’t just have to learn, we have to learn to learn. We can’t just take snapshots of our environment, we have to actively and continuously scan and probe it. Whether we’re a lone individual or a vast organisation, we don’t just have to change – we have to change into something that continuously changes.

Water molecules, connecting and letting go, splash onto the rocks of the high mountains. Inexorably drawn by gravity they find each other, become drops, and then trickles. The trickles become small streams, which combine to form bigger streams, then small rivers and bigger rivers, getting bigger and stronger as they go. Flexible particles animated by gravity across a defined but irregular landscape. A river system.

People, connecting and letting go, land into a team. Inexorably drawn by purpose they effortlessly co-operate with each other and with others, organising and reorganising themselves and their teams and communicating and collaborating widely as they openly work towards clear and specified goals – all clearly directed towards an important, higher and deeply meaningful purpose. Who wouldn’t want to belong to, buy from or otherwise associate with that kind of team – or an organisation made up of such teams? In an unpredictable world of seismic change, this is the environment we want to create – an environment in which people can align their purpose with organisational goals and work freely and flexibly enough to do magic.

Whoever or whatever you are, you will change and change and change again in the coming years and decades – reality and survival will require it. And these won’t be small changes – your entire market, business model, customer base, audience or electorate could change almost overnight. And not just once, but again and again. There will be vast threats and also vast opportunities ahead, the stakes growing ever higher. But if you and your people have a clear and focused purpose to energise you, bring you together and direct you, and if you know your landscape and are flexible enough to flow towards that purpose, then you can handle any change. Like water, you will always find a way.

An adaptive organisation is focused, framed and flexible. It’s people feel their purpose, know their landscape and work freely on focused goals. It’s performance is grounded in both quantifiable metrics and active listening to end customers. Its boundaries are vague as it engages with and includes customers, audience, constituents, partners, supporters and others. It’s as comfortable letting go of the old as it is adopting the new. Such an organisation flows easily through the ever-changing landscape of it’s wider reality, always knowing which way to go.

Like a river.

I am actively seeking consulting, freelance, contract, employment or other work related to organisational change, particularly in the direction of sustainability or social responsibility.

If you, your group or your organisation are developing your purpose, surveying your landscape, creating agile teams or otherwise transforming I am available for consulting, freelancing and other hire. My full CV/resume is available here, my personal narrative (including an account of my explorations in economics) is available here, and I can be contacted here.

Thank you.