The Alchemy of Change

Introduction: Optimal Functioning

An organisation that wishes to function optimally and create an adaptable, resilient and ultimately sustainable culture, needs a as priority, to grapple with the question of how to co-ordinate and manage change in a coherent way. This involves addressing the issue of how to pro-actively and maximally harness all the resources within the organisation, and deploy them in a mindful, coordinated and strategically meaningful manner.

The New Normal

Uncertainty and discontinuous change has become the new normal for many organisations. The ability of people to maintain a coherent and consistent culture while remaining responsive and adaptable needs to be encouraged and developed. Organisations can no longer function effectively the old focus and dogged adherence to rigid long term strategies.

This article will suggest a model for change management that focuses on what is needed to maintain relevance and continuity in the organisation while embracing and managing evolution and change.

The Complexity Made Simple

Optimal functioning can only arise out of alignment and coherence in the enterprise structure, strategy, operations and culture. Organisation culture can best be described with reference to the analogy of a soup.

Context

If you were a soup maker, you would need to identify your target market and assess their requirements needs and tastes. You would also need to establish whether this is a standalone product like a meal in one, or a beverage that accompanies other food that you could be selling. If customers are full after eating your soup for example, then won’t buy more food products after that.

Some of the factors to be taken into account when manufacturing the soup are:

• Does the product lend itself to supplementary condiments products that you might sell to enhance to soup? • What type of soup would work best given the climate, lifestyle and eating habits of the target customer base? • Would it be a traditional or novelty product? Staple? or gourmet?

Principle:

  • Whatever it is that you are creating, it exists within a broader milieu of culture, economics and problems of living that your enterprise aims to address through providing products and services.
  • It is vital to use context as a reference point in order to establish your purpose, derive meaning and make relevant decisions.
  • All action must be taken with an appreciation of the reasoning behind the action as well as the effects that the action will have in relation to the broader context.
  • Actions and decisions have to be informed by economics, meaning, needs and demands of the outside context, while remaining true to your goals.
  •   You might have other businesses that this enterprise should support rather undermine.

The Chef’s Eye: Meta-perspective

The chef stands in a transcendent, meta-position, while having access to all parts of the system at any time. The chef is therefore able to simultaneously adjust the relationship between each ingredient and to the soup as whole. The difference between a soup that is actively managed and one that is left on its own in a slow cooker, is a feedback loop that allows the system to self-correct and constantly re-aligning it s present state in relation to an ideal future state.

Cooking as Art, Art as Relationship

When a chef is preparing a soup, like an artist working in a remote studio, he is communing with his ingredients and his craft, as well as with the prospective public who are going to be partaking of and appreciating his production. He needs to balance his understanding of who his customer is with his own appreciation of his craft and his need to express his values, creativity and vision. All of the elements described above, like the name vichyssoise or bouillabaisse, are captured and encrypted in the concept of branding.

The role of the chef is to manage the process of creating the soup, in relation to its final purpose, which is to appeal to and satisfy a particular need in a specific consument population. The chef needs to maintain a constant meta-perspective of the system, comparing what is happening in the kitchen to the values, preferences needs and requirements of the intended end user of the product. The chef also needs to manage costs while keeping in mind the availability and condition of ingredients, staff and equipment. By managing all of these internal and external factors the chef creates a correspondence between all of the elements of the system. It is through this interaction that all decisions and actions within the system can be kept aligned to achieve the ultimate goals and objectives.

“Things have to change in order to remain the same”

Cooking is a dynamic ongoing state of development and evolution. In the process, certain elements need to remain consistent in order for the soup to retain its structure and fulfil its purpose. Other elements need to change in order for the mixture to coalesces into something coherent in order for the whole to transcend the sum of its parts. When preparing a soup, you are either cooking and evolving the mixture, or rendering it inedible by allowing it to remain half cooked or stagnate and rot. Sometimes the idea is to evolve, other times change is more about renewal and staying engaged, relevant and fresh. Much variation and scope exists within the parameters of what will come to be regarded as a soup, in terms of the quality and nature of the creation.

A soup has a character and identity that remains stable and consistent, from the selection and acquisition of raw ingredients, to the finished product. The dominant ingredient, consistency and temperature are decided up front, and the entire preparation is focused upon the achievement of that result. Each ingredient needs to develop individually to the perfect condition and right texture, and the mixture as a whole has to evolve to create the ultimate soup. Individual elements may need to change, to blend in or stand-out, in order to retain the character of the soup.

Principles:

  • Change is inevitable.
  •  It needs to be managed in ways that serve the objectives and ultimate purpose of the enterprise, and the greater good.
  • Clarity and about the values and objectives that provide a consistent focus and stabilising influence is necessary.

Resistance

If unnecessary or unwanted change is made then you will have a dish that is different from what was intended. If some elements are made to stay the same and not allowed to evolve and accommodate to the overall project, you will end up with dysfunctional product that is arrested in its development.

Thresholds and Rites of Passage

Each stage of cooking when viewed in isolation, and from a limited perspective, could look absurd or destructive. Raw ingredients in water, or foods being prepared individually before being combined, may have no resemblance to or even vaguely approximate the final product. They then start to cook and move into a betwixt and between stage of development which looks messy. This stage creates some waste or unpleasant elements as part of the process. These elements sometimes need to be skimmed off and removed to avoid compromising the quality of the final product.

The cook needs to be able to identify what part of the breakdown is evolutionary change that will result in the desired goal being achieved, and what elements are being created by the changes that are potentially destructive to the process. If you look at the change process at any stage before the final product, if ready it may look illogical and even unpleasant. It is only when you view the process as a whole that you can see the importance of each stage. Through the process of development, some contributions will seem to disappear into obscurity, while others will remain visible or stand out. Nothing is lost in the process. Every element and action contributes to the process, even if only a residue of their influence is left.

Perspective

When you cook a soup from beautiful fresh ingredients, it is hard to throw them into a pot knowing that their aesthetic beauty and individual character will be lost. Keeping them hover in their pristine state will prevent you from creating a soup, and they will ultimately be lost anyway. By cooking them, you lose their individual identity but gain a new level of magic from the combination turning the product into an edible art form.

Principles:

  •   Change involves both loss and gain.
  • Whether you are pushed into a change process by choice or by force of circumstance, you will experience some aspects of the change as being destructive and unwelcome and others as enjoyable and beneficial.
  • The pain or discomfort experienced during change is the experience of your own inner-resistance to the new reality and to the sacrifices and adjustments that are required to embrace it.
  • The process change and its accompanying challenges cannot be stopped or prevented. What you can control however, is your perspective on change, so that you focus of what you are gaining while graciously embracing the losses.

Continuous or Discontinuous

Some change evolves according to a visible or predictable pattern. These are continuous changes. Other changes are unpredictable, or seem illogical and to be outliers to the process. Both types of change can be useful depending on the circumstances and objectives. Sometimes you need stand back and allow circumstances to evolve, at other times radical intervention is needed. It is important to know which is optimal for the circumstances and objectives at play. Confusing and using one when you the alternative is appropriate could prove to be catastrophic.

Part/Whole Relationship

“I am not in the habit of rewriting my compositions. I never did it because I am profoundly convinced that every change of detail changes the character of the whole.” Ludwig van Beethoven

In a soup, each ingredient contributes to the flavour of the soup. In time a coherent flavour develops and each part contributes to and is simultaneously flavoured by the whole. This is called a recursive relationship. The relative influence of a particular ingredient has no correlation to its size or prestige in relation the whole or other key ingredients. Even a small or minor ingredient can make a distinctive valued contribution or irretrievably ruin the whole. The quality of every ingredient without exception affects the overall quality of the end product. Any inferior ingredients, such as a small amount of cheap wine, brings down the overall quality of the whole no matter how superior the other ingredients.

Principles:

  • Culture needs to be carefully guarded and managed. It is created by, and in turn influences, the people participating in the culture.
  • Every person in the system is important and makes a difference by their presence, attitude, approach and demeanour. A junior person who has a lot of contact with the staff body could have more impact on culture than a senior person who is remote and unavailable. This could be for good or for bad.

Harmony and Counterpoint

In a perfect soup, the competing and potentially antagonistic flavours, like sweet and sour, bitter and salty are harmonised into a perfect counterpoint that brings out the best in each in perfect proportion and balance. If all ingredients are simply thrown into the pot, with enough heat and time, the mixture will cook into something that would qualify as a soup, and probably be somewhat edible. If the chef monitors the progress and keeps adjusting the process in order to arrive at some ideal state, the soup can develop into something superior. No person other than the chef, no matter how key and essential they are to the process can function as a part of the system, while simultaneously focussing upon and managing the system as a whole. The cook alone can achieve this by virtue of his position relative to the system.

Managing Subtle Details

If in the preparation of the dish essential steps like browning ingredients before cooking are left out then the quality of the final outcome will be affected. This as regardless of anyone other than the culprit knows about the omission. If any stage that is completed sloppily, like badly cut vegetables or meat the overall appearance of final outcome will be affected.

Principles:

  • In social systems, like cooked dishes, the difference between OK, good or superb, lies in the management of subtle details and seemingly small steps or ingredients.
  • When you are serious about creating a well functioning superior enterprise, no short cuts or skimping can be tolerated, on who you include on the project and the dedication and striving for excellence that goes into every detail of the work.

Complexity

If the cook throws many ingredients in together it will be difficult to discern the individual influence of each ingredient. If the flavour goes awry, the complexity of the mixture will make it difficult to work out what ingredient or dynamic is giving rise to the problem and remediation will be difficult.

Principle:

  • “Too many cooks spoil the broth”
  • To many changes or complex conversations going on in an enterprise makes change management unwieldy because people become unable to manage the part whole relationships and understand the influences that are resulting in either desirable or undesirable outcomes in the system

Conclusion: The Catalyst

The catalytic ingredients’ that allow the whole ecology around the creation of soup to coalesce into something coherent is an encompassing shared sense of purpose and meaning. A shared sense of purpose and meaning means each person knowing what the expectations and priorities are for the enterprise and themselves are, as well as how their participation makes a difference to the organisations strategic objectives. This sense of shared meaning has to be reflected in the culture and transmitted by the corporate identity.

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