Change as a Constant

It’s a cliché that change is a constant. In The New Ecology of Leadership I give readers a very different view of the relationship between change and stability based upon the study of natural systems. It all depends on scale:

  • Change is ongoing at all scales; whether you detect it is only a question of scale in space and time.
  • Change is smooth, slow, and linear when growth processes are at work but rapid and nonlinear when the destructive counterparts are in operation.
  • Self-organizing processes are key. Natural systems don’t need a manager; they have evolved to be self-managing under a wide range of conditions.
  • For managers and leaders there is no choice between stability and change: it’s change on our own scale and timetable vs. someone else’s.
  • Complex structures develop from resilient, small-scale, fast-moving systems to efficient-but-brittle, large-scale, slow-moving ones.
  • Creation requires destruction to break down old hierarchies, create the open patches from which innovation can emerge, and restore resiliency to the system.

The implications for managers and leaders are important:

  • Don’t think of organizations just as structures: think of them also as movements. The only difference between the two is the scale in space and time from which one views them.
  •  Stability and change are layered in space and time; stability at one level is the result of dynamic processes of change at another, finer-grained level, and change there is possible only because of stability at the level below it. Ask questions like these: “Why do things stay the same?” “What feedback processes sustain this apparent stability?” “What needs to stay stable for this change to work?” and “What needs to change for us to stay the same?”
  • Change takes place on the edges of systems and in open patches, where variety and diversity can flourish on a small scale and without competition. Conversely, change in the core can be difficult because all the resources there are taken.
  • Fire changes the way resources flow through the forest system—the resulting change is on a narrow but deep front. This is in contrast to the broad, shallow change initiatives that are so common in human organizations.
  • For innovators it helps to be small and mobile for quick experimentation and rapid prototyping in the places of maximum potential—where feedback is specific and fast.
  • The seeds of destruction are in the fruits of success: large scale and homogeneity lead to a lack of resilience and create systemic vulnerability to catastrophic change.
  • Creation requires destruction: look for opportunities on disturbed ground—turbulent markets where information is poor. Economists call such circumstances “market failures”; entrepreneurs call them “opportunities.”