Double Vision: “Boxes and Bubbles” Thirty Years On [Part II]

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This is the second blog on the thirtieth anniversary of my article “Of Boxes, Bubbles and Effective Management” appearing in the May-June 1984 issue of the Harvard Business Review. I had been inspired to write the article when I read Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh and realized that the Taoist duality of yin and yang and the dynamics of their relationship captured what had happened to us as a management team. After that I started to read the Taoist classics – the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang-tzu. I found that the dualistic framework helped me to understand a number of the tensions in Western thinking and the polarization that one encountered, especially in the social sciences.

From Taoism it was a short step to research on the brain, especially the split-brain experiments that suggested that, although the left and right sides of the brain did not perform different functions, they constituted two separate “takes” on the world and that the corpus callosum, which connected the two halves, played an important but complex role. The implications of this research continue to rumble around and have been revived most recently in Iain McGilchrist’s encyclopaedic The Master and His Emissary in which he contends that the left-brain (the emissary), with its linear, reductionist take on the world, has usurped the role of the right-brain (the master) with its more holistic, figurative understanding.

The real breakthrough in my thinking came when I was introduced to the work of Canadian ecologist, C.S. “Buzz” Holling and his concept of the adaptive cycle. His study of ecosystems of various kinds suggested that they all followed a distinctive infinity loop trajectory of birth, growth, destruction and renewal. In 1994 together with an academic colleague I wrote a paper in which we applied this cycle to human organizations and called it the “ecocycle”. This was to provide the foundation of an ecological perspective with huge integrative powers.

An Ecological Perspective

Here is a diagram of Holling’s adaptive cycle as presented in his 2002 book, Panarchy, written with Lance Gunderson:

Panarchy model

Holling’s Adaptive Cycle (Panarchy, 2002)

The diagram shows the adaptive cycle passing through four distinct phases. The first two ‘r’ and ‘K’ are named after the two terms in the logistics equation, where r is the growth rate and K is the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. These are two distinctive selection environments that favour two distinctly different growth strategies. r-Strategists produce a high number of offspring with limited parental care often in volatile, unstable environments. K-strategists, on the other hand produce a limited number of offspring and invest a significant amount of time in their development; this works well in stable environments. Experiments with fruit flies shows that their strategies will change based on the type of environment that they are exposed to. There are obvious echoes of these approaches in the business world, with internet startups typically pursuing r-strategies and longer established firms in stable markets pursuing K-strategies.

The other two phases through which the ecocycle passes are named after alpha and omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Omega is the release phase, when large, apparently successful systems become overconnected and brittle and vulnerable to sudden change. Alpha, on the other hand, is the phase when new connections are made among myriad loosely-connected components of the system to create new possibilities for growth and the emergence of r-strategists. And the whole cycle can be linked back to Taoism in its role as an early systems view of how nature functions.

Adding Another Framework

By 1995 I was able to add to this ecological view management theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer’s three perspectives on action. In his 1982 book, Organizations and Organization Theory, he had suggested that theories of organization tended to be built around one of three different perspectives on action:

  • Action as purposive, rational (at least in intent) and goal-directed
  • Action as externally constrained and situationally determined
  • Action as more random and emergent, depending on an unfolding process

The first one is by far the most popular in the Western world, particularly in America where free will and conscious choice are idealized. In the second view the role of human cognition emerges after choice to make sense of what has been chosen and to provide meaning and a sense of control. In the third view action is all about experiencing outcomes and developing preferences; rationality and cognition emerge from this process of discovery of cause-and-effect. I realized that these three perspectives could be seen as phases in the ecocycle. All action begins as almost random and emergent, becomes purposeful and rational as preferences and an understanding of cause-and-effect emerge and develops into a dogma that gives a sense of control and legitimizes the use of power. The result of “rubbing” Holling’s and Pfeffer’s frameworks together was a new ecological synthesis that could be used to understand human organizations. It would form the foundation for both Crisis & Renewal and The New Ecology of Leadership.

Thirty years ago “Of Boxes, Bubbles and Effective Management” provided the seeds for some large trees! And there is some evidence that others find this direction useful. In his latest book, Accelerate, well-known change expert John Kotter calls for organizations to develop a dual operating system with a management–driven hierarchy for reliability and efficiency and a strategy acceleration network for agility and speed. It’s a call for “both…and” rather than “either/or” and although Professor Kotter seems to think it a new idea in management, it’s been around philosophically for several thousand years and the basic clues of how to do it are written in the book of Nature.

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