Noise Isn’t the Enemy: Finding the Signal In Your Organization

The work of organizational transformation is complex. An important part of doing it well is figuring out ways to explain and discuss it that respect its complexity, but also help bring order and understanding to what we’re trying to do. To that end, I love using metaphors to describe aspects of our work. I’m always on the lookout for new metaphors, and recently I came across one that I think is really helpful.

Enter, stochastic resonance.

My layperson explanation of this phenomenon is this: adding “noise” to a weak electromagnetic signal actually helps a sensor detect it instead of drowning it out. This seems counterintuitive to me. How can adding noise (the “bad” stuff) to a system actually amplify the signal (the “good” stuff)?

The basic idea is that adding noise, which consists of many different frequencies, matches with enough of the signal to act like a boost. With the noise riding on top of the signal that used to be too weak to be detected, it now reaches the threshold required for a sensor to detect it. Where once we thought there was nothing, we now realize there’s a signal — all thanks to adding what seems like disorder to the system.

This diagram should help explain it:

Blue = signal and black = noise. Together, they allow the signal to be sensed.

Now, what the heck does this have to do with organization transformation?

Organizations have noise and signal, too. Organizational noise are the behaviors, processes, habits, and characteristics that make it more difficult for the organization to achieve its purpose.

Things like unnecessary complexity across all domains of the organization (structure, process, policies, etc.), lack of role clarity, non-alignment on key tools or processes, uncertainty, and a lack of interpersonal trust among employees are all examples of the noise that often exists within large organizations. An organization with too much noise may be buzzing with activity, but it’s not actually functioning particularly well.

On the other hand, if we continue to extend the metaphor, we can say organizations also have signals. Organizational signals are the behaviors, processes, habits, and characteristics that are productive and useful. They help the organization move closer to its overall purpose. Things like efficient meetings, a well-honed operating rhythm, role clarity, a focus on learning, and clear communication expectations, and protocols all fall into this category.

We need more signal and less noise. Seems simple enough, right?

When I first started doing organizational transformation work, I thought enhancing signal and eliminating noise was the way to approach my task. To seek out the sources of noise and eradicate them so that the signal could be more clearly heard. Now? I’m not so sure it’s that simple…

I believe we can use stochastic resonance in the way we think about and do organizational transformation work.

Instead of seeking out complexity in order to remove it, we seek out complexity and use it as an impetus for teaching new mindsets. Dealing with complexity requires fundamentally different mindsets than dealing with complicatedness. We never come into an organization and promise to remove all the complexity. We certainly help to remove unnecessary complexity, but it’s far more important that the organization be able to productively cope — and even thrive — in complex conditions than figure out ways to turn complexity into complicatedness.

Instead of locking down a rigid set of interlocking job descriptions and accountabilities, we use a lack of role clarity as an impetus for creating a flexible role marketplace. Clear job descriptions and titles seem like the obvious solution to feelings of confusion around knowing who is accountable for what. Instead, we challenge our clients to think about the work to be done within their organizations not as static jobs, but as flexible roles that are clearly articulated and dynamically filled.

Instead of trying to eliminate uncertainty, we use the uncertainty to develop new resiliency mechanisms and better resource allocation strategies. Uncertainty is here to stay. The nature of our interconnected world and the high rate of change of nearly everything means that there’s much less we can know with certainty. Instead of battling this uncertainty in a quixotic quest to feel like we know what is happening, we instead learn how to become comfortable with uncertainty. Comfort with uncertainty unlocks new ways of working, organizing, and making bets about the future that incumbents often don’t experiment with until it’s too late.

Instead of trying to eliminate the overwhelming noise, we use it to spur the development of self-managing teams and new ways of thinking about leadership. An organization without noise is an organization that has stopped growing. Moving quickly in a complex world, working toward a meaningful purpose, having colleagues with diverse perspectives, and constant innovation will always create noise as a byproduct.

We need the organizational noise to help our clients see the need for fundamental changes in their organizational operating system. The noise helps create a sense of urgency and a need for doing things differently. Without the noise it would be difficult to introduce these new concepts in a way that makes much sense. In order to amplify the signal already present in the organization (and the fundamentally new ways of thinking, working, and organizing we bring with our expertise), we need the base level noise to help us make it real.

I no longer resist the randomness and chaos that can seem to accompany the organizations with which we work and the transformation journeys on which we take them. I know the noise that’s inherent in every organizational system will actually help us find the important signals that might be too weak for us to notice otherwise. By embracing the noise, we can help drive even more effective and lasting change than we could without it.

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