Recently I have been asked to facilitate a workshop for the alumni of University of Stellenbosch entitled Masterclass in Systemic Organisation and Societal Transformation. As part of the marketing drive, I responded to a few questions which resulted in the following reflections on the biggest challenges faced by organisations today and on the perception of transformation.
The biggest challenge of all organisations, public, private and NGO, is the rapidity of change and the growing complexity they are confronted with. This will not go away but accelerate in future in the increasingly interconnected global economy and world. Organisations will need to learn to manage within this.
Currently they respond with a plethora of change interventions aimed at different functions of the organisation. And while some lead to improvements in some areas, others are ineffective or even make things worse (e.g. by impacting negatively on other areas in the organisation or other stakeholders, creating instability and chaos, draining resources and making members change wary).
What is needed is wholistic (also referred to as systemic) organisation development, or more specifically, a wholistic transformation that allows the organisation to deal more effectively, creatively and resiliently with the growing complexity and change without losing stability.
Is there enough awareness of the importance of transforming organisations / companies to deal with such challenges?
In my experience as a systems thinker, the concept of transformation is not really understood. Apart from having a particular political connotation in South Africa, it is also not understood by the current management paradigm in general. The main reason for this is that it is still grounded in the reductionist worldview of the industrial age which focuses on the best practice within the separate functions of an organisation (e.g. marketing, sales, finance, operations, strategy, leadership, people management, resource management, IT), while transformation is associated with the wholistic perspective of their synergistic interaction. Put differently, the reality of management praxis is that each strategic decision always involves multiple perspectives derived from different functional requirements and stakeholder interests. Each management situation involves a unique combination of these, leads to unique outcomes and sets in motion unique consequences for the system itself and the other systems it impacts on. This is the reason for the growing change and complexity that ripples through all systems worldwide. We can either be rushed along by their rapids, or learn to steer through them.
Synergy cannot be micro-managed in a reductionist manner. It requires management based on a different logic, derived from wholistic thinking. Albert Einstein alerted us to this by observing that problems cannot be solved by the level of thinking that gave rise to them but only by a new level of thinking. Wholism (or systems thinking or complexity theory as it is also referred to) represents such higher level thinking. It gives rise to insights and solutions that are not available within the reductionist paradigm. It also represents the logic of a wholistic organisational transformation.
Such a transformation involves not only a transformation in thinking, but also the setting up of coordinating structures, procedures, guidelines and frameworks appropriate for synergistic management. We call this “wiring” the organisation for ongoing change. This is the challenge of organisation and business development of the information age. This “wiring” is analogous to establishing a GPS that allows a system to steer an intended course in any environment. The GPS, like the “wholistic wiring” of an organisation enables a system to steer an intended course in a turbulent sea of change and complexity, instead of being tossed around by it.
What are some of the key messages that you would like to convey to your audience through this Masterclass?
The key message is that a wholistic organisational transformation is profoundly simple and hugely effective (even if not always easy to bring about). It will be outlined how a transformed organisation functions and how the process of transformation should, ideally, be managed and its momentum maintained.
The reason why we speak of a Masterclass is that all delegates will have change management experience due to having managed, participated in or observed various change interventions and their outcomes. During the class the delegates can share and reflect on their experience and understand it within a wholistic context.
Amongst others it will be understood that all function specific management models and concepts that are learned in the course of management education and praxis are useful, provided they are applied in the right manner, at the right time in the right context and for the right purpose. If not, they create problems and lead to failure. Mastery is associated with the wisdom arising from this wholistic understanding.