The Season of Organizational Renewal
Over a sandwich at a local shop the other day, a colleague asked why I care so much about the utility of the strategic narrative framework for ‘legacy’ institutions, which are historically successful, but have become overgrown, complex and challenged by changing circumstances.
“I have always thought that the most powerful achievements come from having to change course part-way through the journey. It’s very different from being a start-up and having the opportunity to build a narrative from the beginning. I admire and want to support the nuanced focus it takes to shift direction.”
I might be so passionate about mid-course transformation because it is also personal: In the past few years, I shifted from being the CEO of a global organization to starting my own consulting business, and have made changes in my personal life too. I feel I know something about the challenges and rewards that come from shifting course. And I’m writing this a few days before my birthday, which always makes me think about the past and renewal.
As with people, organizations cannot simply assume that their past successes will continue, because our environment is changing in many complex ways at once. They must think about how future conditions will shape success in new ways. Working through the strategic narrative process is about articulating the mechanics of renewal; the drama of a strategic narrative lies not in a distant vision of a thriving future, but in the difficult, but ultimately powerful work of getting there.
In Washington DC, where I live, the need for new strategic narratives is on display daily. It’s glaringly clear that approaches to governance that once worked are unreliable in the emerging technological and social conditions of our age. These conditions cannot simply be transcended through politics; we need systems that can behave in new ways.
It is also springtime here in Washington, and despite a late snowfall, the cherry blossoms and daffodils are blossoming. They are a lovely reminder of the relentless urge to renewal in all things.
Each month, the Catalyst provides a quick list of useful and provocative sources for thinking more deeply and building strong strategic narratives in our institutions, communities and nations. This month: two works that provide guidance for adapting to a world of complex technologies and systems, and one bit of entertainment that reminds us that our technological anxieties aren’t new.
Book: Overcomplicated, Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Samuel Arbesman
As our technology systems grow more interdependent and interconnected, they spawn surprise events like the 2010 “flash crash” of the US equity markets and the Amazon Web Service outage of earlier this spring, which upset hundreds of thousands of websites in one day. Samuel Arbesman in Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension explains with great clarity this is so, and why such behavior cannot be predicted.
We can, however, adapt our own behavior to better suit our new conditions.. Arbesman recommends that we learn to think more like biologists, who have always worked with complex systems, like the human body. Biologists catalog the details of the world before them, celebrating its diversity. By exploring little bits of a system, biologists gain insight into the behavior of the whole.
Of course, the activity that best manifests “thinking like a biologist” is storytelling. You can read more about Arbesman’s book, and an associated proposal that we can use storytelling to better understand our most complex social institutions here.
Report: Preventing Violence: Community-based Approaches to Early Warning and Early Response (EWER)
A Tanzania-based researcher Steven Leach, works to address a different kind of complex system: communities that threaten to turn violent. Earlier this month, he sent me his recent report, Preventing Violence: Community-based Approaches to Early Warning and Early Response (EWER). The report draws largely on specific cases in Timor-Leste, South Africa, Kenya and other localities that have faced the severe threat of local violent conflict. His work will be of great interest to conflict resolution professionals, of course, but it also contains significant insights for anyone setting up an indication and warnings system, whether in a community, a company or another institution.
Leach’s topics include the pros and cons of top-down and bottom-up systems; what makes for a good set of indicators; insights for making sure that information collected by monitors is viewed as credible; and the various forms of response available. You can download the report in English, French or Arabic here.
Film: Desk Set
If you think fears of automation taking over our jobs are new, you might like to know that Katherine Hepburn faced them too. Her character did, anyway, in the 1957 romantic comedy Desk Set. This charming period piece pits Hepburn, as television network reference librarian Bunny Watson, against Richard Sumner (played by Spencer Tracy), an efficiency expert tasked with installing his invention, an ENIAC-like mainframe computer, in the library. While much has changed in the workplace, the ultimate lesson seems relevant: the computer is only as good as those who program it. You can find the film on Netflix and elsewhere for rental.