But First, We Need To Agree On This— Our One Rule For Organizational Change

We believe the most important shift organizations need to recognize when doing organisational change is to go from best practices to emergent practices.

Rasmus Noah Hansen
7 min readJan 17, 2023

How do you make sense of the world and the challenges within it — and how does it affect the decisions you make? That’s the overarching question and understanding I want you to leave this article with — hoping that you will agree that making sense of machines versus organizations are two very different disciplines.

I’ll Do the Thinking and You’ll Do the Working

In order to understand why most people can’t see the difference between an ordered and a complex system, we need to go back 100-120 years were thinkers like Henry Fayol, Max Weber, and especially Fredrick Taylor revolutionized our organisations.

These were times when most production of goods, and labour in general, were associated with being linear and having high predictability — but also with little to no standard operating procedures for how to produce these goods — in other words, great inefficiency. One worker performed their work one way, the next, another.

In came Frederick Taylor and his stopwatch to revolutionize how we worked and organized through what was later coined as Scientific Management Theory (or Taylorism). To avoid making this article longer than needed, Taylor’s main idea was to find the most effective way of doing work by dividing jobs into simple and repeatable activities that were performed by the same people to increase efficiency.

Taylor also believed people, in general, were motivated by money so companies should financially incentivize workers to perform their repetitive tasks as efficiently as possible and on the other side minimize pay to “lazy” workers to get rid of them.

Later came Henry Fayol who put an even larger focus on dividing thinking and governing work from doing work, aka management & administration. Max Weber gave us bureaucracy, creating even further job specialisation, hierarchy and control mechanisms.

Separating “thinking” work from “doing” work

The rise of Scientific Management practices, and theories alike, were spreading widely and rapidly across countries and industries and led to significant growth in the economy as products became cheaper and more accessible. The result? Better healthcare, education and income to a broad spectrum of the world's population.

Going From Predictability to Complexity

Time to jump back to today to find the problem. Because today, the same beliefs, ideas and practices that revolutionized industries, still are the default way of structuring and operating most organisations. The problem? The conditions and environment we find ourselves in today are radically different from the beginning of the 19th century, so what used to work simply no longer works.

VUCA is often used to describe today's environment

We’ve gone from linear and predictable systems and challenges to an environment today that is characterized by immense complexity and uncertainty. We’re collaborating across time zones, with people very different from ourselves, often solving challenges that change as we interact with them. Hard to measure, control and standardize.

Despite this change of system, most organizations, consultancies and leaders still fall back to the same outdated thinking and practices in their attempt to successfully do organizational change. They believe they can find “the one best way” of working and operating. They take decisions as if organisations are complicated systems, not complex. Let me explain.

Making Sense Through the Cynefin Framework

What we at eliot want our clients to understand and consent to on day 1 (or 2 if needed) is that we need to navigate culture and organizations as complex systems and not ordered systems as we always have.

One way to understand the switch is to use the Cynefin (pronounced kun-ev-in ) decision-making framework which, at its most basic, allows us to distinguish between three different kinds of systems.

The latest updated version of Cynefin by Dave Snowden
  • Ordered systems (clear and less clear aka complicated) are governed and constrained in a way where cause-and-effect relationships are either clear or discoverable through analysis. A car engine and a computer program are ordered systems. 100 years ago, work and organisations were mostly ordered systems.
  • Complex systems are where causal relationships are entangled and dynamic and the only way to understand the system is to interact with it. People, traffic, collaboration, and organisations are complex systems. If a system can surprise you, it’s most likely a complex system.
  • Chaotic systems are where there are no effective constraints, turbulence reign and immediate stabilizing action is required. Situations in war and other crises are often more chaotic systems. Taking action and creating boundaries, moves it into a complex system.

Understand the System Before You Choose Your Weapon

Cynefin’s boundaries can help organizations to identify what kind of systemic context they find themselves in. Being able to locate themselves, and their challenges help determine the appropriate actions, methods, and tools.

It helps us understand why most reorgs fail when expensive consultancies try to implement a best-practice solution through a classic waterfall project or why Kotters 8 Steps of Change is an extreme simplification of what it takes to transform organizations.

Kudos to me for practising my drawing skills… (art direction, Martin Bloomstine 😏)

Organizations go wrong when they apply tools that work for complicated situations in their efforts to solve complex challenges. In their search for predictability, control and perfection, which is close to impossible to have in a complex domain, they add more bureaucracy, hierarchy, and micromanagement that slow down the organization with unnecessary paperwork and bottlenecks. They remove ownership, autonomy and creativity from their employees, making it hard for anyone to be excited about work.

They make financial incentives to motivate people, but forget that today’s employees are highly educated knowledge workers that are motivated by many other aspects than just pay — like progress, purpose, autonomy, type of work, and making a difference in their work and for the planet.

Navigating Complexity Through Experiments

So what does this new situation demand and call for when doing organisational change? What does it mean for leaders and organizations to navigate in a complex environment? What actions are needed?

From Best Practice to Emergent Practices

In complex situations, we are constantly operating in uncertainty where the system constantly changes as we interact with it. The way to improve a complex system is therefore by experimenting with approaches that are safe to fail but designed to teach us what may work at that moment, in those circumstances. Tenaciously work to improve things, incrementally and continuously.

Emergent ways of working

We Need Chefs, Not Recipes.

And as complex problems never will be fully ‘solved’, the work on complex challenges never will be ‘finished’. Since there are no right or wrong answers to complex problems, we must realize that what we are trying to achieve is not solutions, it’s continuous improvement — and most importantly, the ability to create it in our teams, with partners and generally in our organisations.

It’s essential that teams and organizations learn to constantly evaluate how they work and experiment with ways to improve them. Creating safe-to-try experiments to understand if your ideas and methods work or not and change accordingly. Organisational change is not a destination, but a journey that never ends.

I love the “Chef’s, not recipes” idea, but I’m unsure if this drawing is doing it justice…

Our purpose with eliot is therefore to help organisations and teams see and think differently when it comes to change. Be a mirror, challenge, and sometimes teach, mentor, and introduce new tools and methods. In the end, we can’t control what happens, but we’ll work stubbornly to improve how our clients work and collaborate in their organisation.

I want to close with the famous Biblical parable of the sowe and wish you great learnings and continuous improvements in your journey towards a better way of working.

We sow seeds, some fall on fertile ground, others on impenetrable soil, and yet others sprout but get overgrown by weeds. Our responsibility is to keep sowing the seeds, that is all we have control over.

I’m Rasmus, an independent Org. Designer & Facilitator who supports empathic leaders transform their organisations by creating engaged, effective & psychological safe teams.

If you want to explore how we can work together, book a call.

Connect with me on LinkedIn to get insights and knowledge on how to create more resilient teams and organisations.

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