Monday, September 28, 2009

The Union of Evolution and Strategy - Part #1

THEME: Fall 2009 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable Report

FOCUS: The Union of Evolution and Strategy - Part #1

Monday morning: September 28, 2009

Dear friends,

This past week a marvelous group of people gathered together for the Fall 2009 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable. It was a great time as we explored a diverse set of topics and engaged in many healthy and thought-provoking strategic dialogues. To include the rest of you who could not come, I have decided to spend the rest of the fall summarizing what we explored.

First off, the recommended reading for the Fall ‘09 Roundtable was the following: Collins, Jim. How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In, Harper Collins, 2009. This is a great resource for building common perspective and understanding. It continues the research Collins presented in both Built To Last and Good to Great. It is particularly important to read or reread it this fall as many companies have the potential to make the wrong decisions and thus enter into a spiral of decline.

With this book as a framework to our time together, I began the Fall ‘09 Roundtable exploring four key principles based on the research and writings of Richard T. Pascale, Mark Millemann and Linda Gioja in their book, Surfing The Edge of Chaos: The Laws of Nature and the New Laws of Business, Three Rivers Press, 2000.

Before I introduced the first principle, I explained that many organizational change patterns come from a social engineering background. From this perspective, many leaders assume that they are the head of the organization, and the organization is the body. They assume that in order to be successful all intelligence is centralized near the top of the organization. Next, many organizations and their leaders follow the premise of predictable change, namely that the implementation plans are scripted by a single senior executive or the senior team on the assumption of a reasonable degree of predictability and control during the time span of the change effort. Finally, many leaders follow the assumption of cascading intention, namely that once a course of action is determined, initiative flows from the top down. When a program is defined, it is communicated and rolled out through the ranks. Often, this includes a veneer of participation to engender buy-in.

As I pointed out, these assumptions work fairly well when the solution is known in advance and an established repertoire exists to implement it. However, given the current social and economical environment, these assumptions are, for the most part, obsolete. Therefore, one must ask the following question: What does it takes to be a successful leader and a successful company in this time of constant turmoil and ambiguity?

“Two imperatives govern survival in many industries today,” writes Richard Tanner Pascale in the spring of 2001. “The first requires agility in the face of high level of strategic ambiguity. The second is a shift in culture and capability from slow, deliberate organizations to forms that behave like living organisms, fostering entrepreneurial initiatives, consolidating learning and moving rapidly to exploit winning positions in the marketplace.” As he continues to explain, “Over many millions of years, nature has devised strategies for coping with prolonged periods of gradual change and occasional cataclysms in which only the most agile survive.”

The first principle we explored at the Fall Roundtable was the following: “Equilibrium is a precursor to death.” Pascale explains it this way: “When a living system is in a state of equilibrium, it is less responsive to changes occurring around it. This places it a maximum risk.” This principle comes from an obscure but important law of cybernetics called The Law of Requisite Variety. FYI: cybernetics is the science of communication and control theory that is concerned especially with the comparative study of automatic control systems as in the nervous system and brain and mechanical-electrical communication systems. The Law of Requisite Variety states that the survival of any organism depends on its capacity to cultivate (not just tolerate) variety in its internal structure. As he explains, “Failure to do so leads to inability to cope successfully with variety when it is introduced from outside.”

A wonderful example of this is a fish in a bowl. Here, it can swim, breed, and obtain food with minimal effort. There are no predators, but at the exact same time the fish is very sensitive to the slightest disturbances. On the other hand, fish in the sea work harder to sustain themselves. They have to evade many threats and can cope with more variations. Therefore, they are more robust when faced with change.

Now, equilibrium is a precursor of disaster must be assessed in the context of scale and time. In a small scale and a short time period, equilibrium is desirable. However, in a large scale, and long time period, equilibrium is hazardous because the environment is always changing. Furthermore, prolonged equilibrium dulls an organizations “to arouse itself appropriately in the face of danger.”

Therefore, one must ask the following question: “Why don’t all living systems spiral into the thrall of equilibrium and die?” The answer lies in two countervailing forces of nature, namely the threat of death, the eternal Darwinian struggle for survival, and the promise of sex, the recombination that introduces genetic diversity

According to Darwin, species do not evolve of their own accord. They change because of forces, indeed threats, imposed on them from the environment. This is caused by “selection pressures.” These selective pressures increase during periods of radical upheaval. Thus, when challenged to adapt too far from their origin and are unable to do so, a species will disappear. Sometimes, a species can do an “ecological upgrade” via having the ability to mutate and survive. The result is that they can fit better into the new environment.

The other solution is to these challenges is the promise of sex. Sex is nature’s second defense against stagnation. If being homogeneous creates vulnerability, then through sex there is the possibility of structural recombination which maximizes diversity. The classic business example of this element is when we routinely bring in outside people to work for the company. This “fresh blood” brings in a problem, too. We forget that external DNA challenges the existing social order. Often, the result is that the corporate body will identify the “foreign influences” and seek to neutralize them. In nature, these are called “equilibrium enforcers.” There are many of them out there right now.

This week, reflect on the principle that “equilibrium is a precursor to death”, and discuss this concept with your team.

Have a great week,


Geery Howe, M.A.
Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in
Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change

Morning Star Associates
319 - 643 - 2257

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