September 3, 2017

Metaphors of Metamorphosis: Organizational Change isn’t Just about Forgetting the Old

(c) 2017 Amy Zalman

It is also about remembering.

As both an avid vegetable gardener and someone professionally consumed with organizational transformation, I have reasons to be interested in caterpillars. In my garden, they are an object of complex judgement calls. Left to their own devices, they devastate parsley, dill, tomatoes, cabbage, but they also transform into striking moths and gorgeous butterflies.

As symbols of leadership and business transformation, caterpillars are no less complicated. In our idealized images of transformation, we are often asked to image what the earthbound caterpillar must give up or lose in order to prepare for a more exalted life as a creature who can fly.   At the level of the organization, this may be a plausible way to think.

But firms are made up of people, who may be trained to perform new actions, but who are also creatures of memory and narrative. While it is easier to approach change while thinking only of the future and what the organization will become, people are inevitably connected (even if the connection is negative) to the past —to everything that has happened until now.

Interestingly, new scientific study may suggest that there is greater continuity between the caterpillar and the butterfly or moth the we may have once thought.  In a 2008 study at Georgetown University, three biology researchers demonstrated that a caterpillar trained to dislike a particular odor retained their aversion to the same odor even after they became a moth, leading them to ask, “Can a Moth Remember what it Learned as a Caterpillar?”

As one of the contributing biologists, Martha Weiss, explains in a TEDx talk, not everything about a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly or moth. Rather “some structures are retained and remodeled.”

Weiss demonstrates that the future structure of a moth is already present in the caterpillar.

There’s more. Some of the structures of the final creature are not created in the transitional state, but have always existed — from the very first day of the life of the caterpillar.  This is a nice reminder that elements of future adaptation may be present in the current organization and that it may be useful to look inward, as well as outward, for sources and inspiration for change.

Recognizing the inevitability of memory in the midst of a metamorphosis can be turned into a useful instrument for engagement.

As the leader of a transition in an incumbent organization, it can be very useful to develop a picture of the view of the past by different stakeholders, internal and external. With this understanding in hand, you can better choose what you would ideally like to be remembered and how to use that memory as part of the organization’s future narrative.  In a subtle way, this may serve to engage those who are inclined to resist change.

When I first arrived to lead the World Future Society in 2014 (I left in 2016), a global non-profit founded in 1966, it was fast on its way to being identified as an organization that had been overtaken by and left behind by other, newer organizations. There was a bit of an air of ruined castle hanging over us. As I began to lead our transition to a different business model, I also began to find it useful to emphasize the organization’s age as the “first” organization of its kind, which more accurately and also kindly, reminded that WFS was actually the progenitor of ideas and organizations that followed. Age and memory were woven into our relevance in the present.

Read More: Is Your Organization Prepared to Explore the Future and the Options for Metamorphosis? Take the Foresight Readiness Assessment to find out.

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