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History Inevitably Runs Deep

August 17, 2017

Hello to all of my dear readers?!

A few months ago I wrote about how the traditional organisational approach that most of us are familiar with today had its origins in the North American railroad boom of the first half of the 19th Century. The piece focussed on the acclaimed work of an American business historian from the 1970’s, and looked at three stages in the evolution of organisational management and structuring. Since I wrote it, I’ve been pondering a little more on the role that history plays in evolutionary change, with the cause for this pondering primarily stemming from observations I’ve made over the past few years across different companies in different industries across different countries in both the southern and northern hemispheres.

These observations have all coalesced into an overriding, dual-faceted conclusion: we forget our history all too frequently; and we do so at our peril.

So what, exactly, do I mean by this?

Well, if you remember my reference to the Swimmer’s Body Illusion in an earlier piece, you’ll be aware of what I’m talking about. This fallacy suggests that we tend to admire the swimmer’s body for its leanness and length, and we tend to falsely assume that we too can acquire such a physique, if only we train hard enough. The flawed assumption is that the swimmer’s physique has resulted entirely from all of the training, and ignores the swimmer’s naturally-occurring lean and long body shape. In other words, we confuse the natural predisposition of the swimmer, which is to be a good swimmer, with our own predisposition, which is to want to look like a good swimmer. And there’s a huge difference here within this confusion.

Most organisational transformation efforts that I see today tend to be based on a similarly-flawed logic. The organisation wants to instantaneously look like a good swimmer, but they do not have the naturally-occurring predisposition to be a good swimmer*. And no matter how much money is spent on changing the aesthetics of an organisation, without a deep and meaningful commitment to transformation by a group with significant influence in the organisation (almost always the C-suite team and/or board), these types of changes are all for naught.

*Here’s an interesting exercise to conduct if your organisation is currently undergoing a transformation: try and identify all of the discrete initiatives underway as part of the transformation, and identify which fit into the category of looking like a good swimmer, and which into the category of being a good swimmer. And if you’re willing to share, let me know—I’d be keen to hear.

The Swimmer’s Body Illusion is a good example of how we can all too-easily forget our past.

We forget where we have come from and in doing-so we turn a blind eye to the various legacies that we inevitably carry with us—those legacies that have the potential to limit us into the future. If, on the other hand, we are aware of our past and of the legacies that we bring with us, we are then in a much better position to understand what our potential is for the future*.

*We are often told that we shouldn’t let ourselves be limited by our history, but as inspirational as that sounds, I long ago eschewed that notion. It’s a bit like Tom Rath calling bullshit on the ‘American dream’ that you can be anything you want to be. For the most part, you can’t—it’s a fallacy. Instead, you’re probably better-off trying to be more of who you already are. This is what is commonly referred to as a strengths-based approach.

Two of the organisational transformation mantras that I oft repeat—work with what you’ve got (rather than with what you’d like to have) and work from where you’re at (rather than from where you’d like to be)—are firmly rooted in notions of history, in acknowledging the various legacies that we bring with us, and in being aware of our potential for the future.

In other words, an underlying principle to these two mantras is to know what your evolutionary potential in the now is, because it is your evolutionary potential* in the now that determines what is and what isn’t immediately achievable in terms of transformation.

*Being aware of your evolutionary potential is similar to being aware of your predisposition. More about working with predispositions in a follow-up piece, because it’s a really important concept to grasp when working on contrarian organisational transformation.

And although it’s not the most encouraging thing to hear, and it certainly doesn’t help sell book titles or keynote speeches, I think it’s crucial to understand this: your current evolutionary potential is a huge limiting factor in terms of your future aspirations. And I don’t mean just you personally; rather I am referring to all of us: for each and every one of us, as individuals, and as organisations, our potential future states are incredibly limited by the unique linearity of our past.

So what, exactly, do I mean by the unique linearity of our past?

When we look at our past, what we see is a linear path. We did this, and then we did that, which led to that happening, and then to this happening, and so forth. It’s very linear in nature, and when viewed at the granular level it’s utterly unique to us. The same thing can be said of many organisational histories. The past has manifested into the present via a series of deliberate choices made and via a series of random and chance happenings, all of which are incredibly unique to each individual organisation.

When we consider the future, however, more often than not we do not face a linear future: rather, we face a potentially infinite number of futures, and in times of uncertainty and unpredictability, it’s often in our best-interests to keep as many of these potential futures open for as long as possible. A scientific term for this concept of multiple potential futures stemming from one single historical point is multifurcation*, which is the point at where one single thing splits into multiple** different things***.

*In evolutionary biology, the term bifurcation, rather than multifurcation, is used because it describes the point when from one species evolves another, leading to two species. In the complexity sciences, the term bifurcation is also sometimes used to describe when a stable system reaches a critical state and begins a phase transition. I am using the word multifurcation, however, because I think it better describes the potentially infinite number of futures possible, not just two. Confused? Don’t worry, so am I.
**The concept of multifurcation is a useful one to be aware of in organisational transformation because it encapsulates the idea that rather than launching one large-scale more-expensive change or innovation initiative, it’s better to launch multiple small-scale less-expensive change or innovation initiatives… although I can’t see the concept of multifurcation replacing the fad of innovation anytime soon in the global corporate landscape.
***If you’re a total dork like me and you’re starting to think, “Hey, this all sounds pretty similar to the concept of path dependence**** and Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety*****”, you’re spot on. Beats are on you.
****Path dependence explains how a future path is dependent upon the path previously taken.
*****Ashby’s Law suggests that for a social entity to be effective in adapting to its changing environment, the diversity of its internal order must match the diversity of the external environment. The problem here being that an organisation with a long and linear history rooted in the origins of scientific management probably lacks the necessary diversity to enable it to adapt.

But here’s the catch with multifurcation in organisations: if the unique linear history is comprised of a series of deliberate choices made and random and chance happenings having occurred that have led to the organisation lacking the evolutionary fitness/appropriate predispositions—or if you prefer the swimming metaphor, the swimmer’s naturally-occurring lean and long body shape—to respond and adapt to the rapidly changing environment, then the organisation will not be able to rapidly transform. They might try to, and they’ll no doubt torch an awful lot of cash in the process, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll get the quick transformation that they’re looking for. Their past simply won’t allow it in the immediate and near-term.

This then explains why I’ve become so sceptical of case-based approaches in organisational development. (If you’re not familiar, the case-based approach is one that attempts to teach and provide solutions to problems in organisations based on previous problems and solutions from other organisations.) Many business institutions today, including the most prestigious one of them all, are famous for claiming their reputation on the merits of their case-based approach, and yet the case-based approach has such limited relevance in a world of ever-increasing complexity. This limited relevance is because what the case-base approach fails to recognise is that every organisation has an incredibly unique and linear history which is unlike any other, and that in a world of epic-level complexity previous solutions have a big chance of doing more harm than good when applied).

It’s also why I squirm just a little bit every time I hear about executives from large traditional organisations taking study tours to learn from the successful tech unicorns of Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv. I squirm because what I see is an unwillingness to acknowledge the realities of their organisation’s past and an unwillingness to understand that all of these new and successful tech startups have vastly different, and for the most part, vastly shorter and more simple histories than compared to those of most organisations of today. These vastly different histories mean in-turn that the opportunities of multifurcation available to most organisations today are again vastly different from those that are available to successful tech startups.

So where exactly have I lead us with this piece?

“Well, the obvious warning was made at the beginning: “we forget our history all too frequently; and we do so at our peril.”

A different way of saying it might be that “we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves”.

Or perhaps we could use the adage “learn to crawl before you learn to walk”.”

Ultimately, what I’m trying to convey is the notion that immediate, instant-fix organisational transformation is unlikely to work—your history won’t allow it. The naturally occurring structures of your organisation cannot be changed immediately, nor can its naturally occurring social phenomena: they are far-too rooted in your history. Remember, organisations are incredibly complex social systems that cannot be treated mechanistically, nor superficially, and at the end of the day, organisational transformation is hard work—really hard work—and you’ve got to be in it a for the long haul.

And so for those committed to the long haul: I salute you.

PS For those of you thinking to yourself, “What on earth has happened to the contrarian organisational transformation book that Pat is meant to be writing?”, know that it is underway. It’s just that like any important organisational transformation initiative: it’s a long, but worthwhile, haul.
PPS I try and heed my own advice, sometimes more successfully than at other times. The image at the top of this piece was taken just below the summit of Denali, at about 11pm on a long summer’s night. With my climbing, I almost never got too far ahead of myself (and whenever I did, I always had near-death experiences).

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