02- From the Pendulum to the Fire

July 13, 2008

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[Co-Authored: William Bergquist and Agnes Mura]

[Derived from William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Ten Themes and Variations for Postmodern Leaders and Their Coaches. and from a forthcoming book, William Bergquist and Agnes Mura, Building an Appreciative Organization: Themes and Strategies for Effective Postmodern Leaders, Consultants and Coaches. For information on both books contact Emily Browne, Administrator, Pacific Soundings Press, 3550 Watt Ave. Suite 140, Sacramento, California 95821.]

Theme: Acknowledging Irreversibility in Our Postmodern World

Fundamental Question

What might we learn from postmodern theorists, observers and critics as well as contemporary physicists and biologists about the nature of change as it is now occurring in 21st Century societies?

Contemporary organizational theory—and, for that matter, most organizational theory during the past century—has been built upon a solid, mechanistic foundation. Many successful organizations during the Twentieth Century operated as well oiled systems. This perspective was key to the success of corporate enterprise during what Henry Luce called The American Century. These organizations imported resources from the outside (such as raw materials, employees, capital, sales orders and customers). They then provided some sort of transformation upon these imported resources (such as converting iron to automobiles, or untrained children to properly educated citizens). Finally these finely tuned organizations exported the transformed product to other organizations located in the external world. Unfortunately, these organizations are often ill equipped to deal with the highly turbulent, complex and unpredictable world of the Twenty First Century.

The mechanistic organization of the Twentieth Century ran like a pendulum. A pendulum epitomizes elegance and simplicity in motion. We can disrupt the course of the pendulum by giving it an added push or by bumping into it and slowing it down. In either case, the pendulum will adjust its course and continue swinging back and forth at a greater or lesser magnitude. The pendulum, in modern systems theory terms, will always return to a homeostatic balance, retaining its basic form or pathway. Systems theorists would suggest that organizations tend to return to their previous form and function even with disruptions and interference. While the contemporary organization may seem to be chaotic and in disarray, we are (according to many modern theorists) merely witnessing a long term process of homeostatic readjustment and an ultimate return to a former state or style of functioning.

Is this mechanistic analogy to the pendulum still accurate for Twenty First Century organizations? Ilya Prigogine, a Nobel Prize winning scientist, suggests that many processes in nature (including perhaps those exhibited by organizations) don’t match very well with the mechanistic world of the pendulum—as much as scientists throughout the ages would like the world to resemble this orderly pendulum. Rather, many processes of the world are likely to resemble the phenomenon that we call fire. Fire is a perplexing problem in the history of science. Prigogine notes that modern scientists, in an effort to create a coherent mechanistic model of the world, have tended to ignore the complex, transformative processes of fire, concentrating on only one of its properties: the capacity to generate heat. Fire thus became a heat machine for scientists and was treated in a mechanistic manner.

Fire, however, has many fascinating properties. Most importantly, it is an irreversible process: it consumes something that can not be reconstructed. Those of us who live in the San Francisco Bay Area were tragically attuned to this phenomenon during the early 1990s, as we watched the irreversible destruction of our neighbor’s homes in the Oakland Firestorm. These homes could never be “unburned.” There would never be a readjustment in the community that was destroyed by the fire. There could only be the construction of new homes and a new community. Many other processes of change and transformation are similarly irreversible. Avalanches can never be undone, nor can Pandora’s Box ever be closed once the lid is opened and the evil spirits have escaped. Rumors can never be totally dispelled once they are let out of their box, just as the good old times can never be restored, despite the efforts of Walt Disney, Frank Capra and other purveyors of nostalgia.

We are reminded of early childhood experiences. One of us was having a debate with a cousin. This debate like all debates during childhood concerned one of the “fundamental” issues of life. In this instance we were arguing about whether or not anything is impossible. I argued that anything is possible. My cousin argued that some things are impossible and offered an example: “you can’t return the toothpaste to a tube once you have squeezed it out!” I had no good rebuttal to that argument and was very impressed with this evidence. Until recently I had no category in which to place this example of impossibility—or more accurately irreversibility. Many changes in organizations operate like toothpaste that has just been squeezed from the tube. I suppose you could get it back in the tube—but what a mess! And would the tube of toothpaste ever really be the same again? We squeeze out organizational truths in moments of frustration or anger and can never cover them up again (a variation on Pandora’s Box). We tentatively consider a change in organizational structure, but the word gets out and we are soon stuck with this change whether we like it or not. We become bound up in complex and paradoxical relationships and can’t undo them—except by divorce. The equilibrium has been disturbed, chaos often follows, and there is no returning home as the same person we were when we left. Time moves in one direction and can not be reversed.

A second remarkable characteristic of fire is its ephemeral nature. It is all process and not much substance. As Prigogine notes, the Newtonian sciences concentrated on substances and the ways in which forces operated on various substances. It became the science of being. Fire, by contrast, is a science of becoming. Science of being, notes Prigogine, focuses on the states of a system, whereas a science of becoming focused on temporal changes—such as the flickering of a flame. Fire demands a focus not on the outcomes of a production process, but on the nature of the process itself. As adults, we often focus on the outcomes of our children’s creative work. We admire their drawings of sunsets or battles among alien forces. Yet, our children tend to focus on the process of drawing. Their picture is not a static portrait. Rather it is story that is unweaving as the child places various lines on the page. In a similar manner we must often focus on the ways in which decisions are made in organizations, or the styles being used to manage employees, rather than focusing on the final decisions that are made or the relative success of the employee’s performance. Unfortunately, organizational processes (like fires) are elusive. They are hard to measure and even harder to document in terms of their ultimate impact on an organization.

Pendulums operate in a quite different manner from fire. First, the movement of a pendulum is quite predictable, whereas fire is very unpredictable. Once we know the initial parameters of the pendulum (length of stem, force being applied when pendulum is first pushed in a specific direction, and so forth) we can predict virtually everything of importance about this mechanistic and relatively closed system. Even without this initial information, we can readily predict the future movement of the pendulum after observing its trajectory once or twice.

A second important feature of the pendulum that makes it a favorite of many modern day scientists is its primary connection to one of the central building blocks of Newtonian science, namely, gravity. While fire seems to defy or at least be indifferent to gravity, flickering about as if it was without weight or form, our noble pendulum provides clear evidence that gravity is present and operating in a uniform and predictable manner on objects of substance. The pendulum is a tool that readily is transformed into a technology (for example, the Swiss watch), based on its dependability and conceptual accessibility. Fire, by contrast, can burn and rage uncontrolled. Once started, fires tend to take on a life of their own, seemingly defying the laws of entropy. Pendulums gradually lose energy and obey the laws of entropy. They will stop when they receive inadequate attention and never rage out of control.

A third feature of the pendulum is the reversibility of its process. The pendulum must swing back and forth, repeatedly moving back to a space that it occupied a short time before. The pendulum, like many mechanistic systems, frequently undoes what has already been done in order for the system to remain in equilibrium and in operation. A pendulum that swings in only one direction (“to but not fro”) would soon be replaced by one that works properly. Organizations that operate like pendulums shift in one direction. They then soon correct themselves and shift back in the opposite direction. Large inventories are soon corrected by a drop in production orders. Later, production orders are increased to make up for a drop in inventory.

In organizations that resemble pendulums, homeostasis is always preserved—eventually. The organization keeps returning to an ideal or minimally acceptable state. Homeorhesis (a Greek word referring to the tendency of organizations to return to a common pathway or style) is also preserved. Leaders of the organization oversee, review and readjust the organization’s mode of operation in order to return to a desired path, style or strategy. Time reverses itself and even restores itself as the organization returns to a previous stasis or “rhesis.” The exceptional biologist and anthropologist, Gregory Bateson speaks of this as “first order” change. In essence, a first order change is one in which people in an organization are doing more of something that they are already doing or less of something that they are already doing. They bring about first order change as a way of returning to some desired state of being (homeostasis). We spend more money on a computer system in order to reduce our customer response time to a former level. We reduce the cost of a specific product in order to restore our competitive edge in the market place. We pay our employees higher wages in order to bring back the high level of morale and productivity in the company. First order changes are always reversible, because we can go back to the drawing board and repeatedly readjust our change effort, while being directed by feedback systems that provide us with information about how we are performing relative to our standard or goal.

In our next blog we will say more about first order change and consider the role played in organizations by second order change and by the processes of reversible (pendulums) and irreversible (fire) transformations.