Rise and Fall of Organisations

Creating Cultures of Growth that Embrace Change

I attended a workshop in the 90s where Bob Hallett introduced me to Lawrence Miller’s work on the progression of organisational change and how it happens in business, education and nonprofits. COVID and other technological forces have both changed the world. It seems like Apple, Google, Microsoft and a few others are able to continually evolve and stay on the edge of learning. The graphic below is based on Miller’s 1989 book, Barbarians to Bureaucrats.

Organisations go through a cycle. Miller’s book discusses seven of these cycles. The blue line is what happens in the organisation with initiatives and/or new processes. It is a leading indicator. The green line signifies the results such as profits, test scores, people we help, etc. It is a lagging indicator. Results usually show up after the change is a regular practice or is a company policy.

A “prophet” appears with a new great idea that they are excited about, drawing others to the idea, too. Once enough people accept the idea and join in, the organisation starts to change behaviours. This could be with a new invention, a new way to teach or even a new leadership strategy.

In the next stage, the “barbarian” has total commitment to this new idea. They pick up the banner and keep the fire burning. As you can see from the graphic, the results start to show a positive trend. The barbarian is a believer, is passionate about the new idea, is convincing and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Many times, the prophet and the barbarian are the same person. What makes barbarians so effective is when in battle, they are the fearless, first ones on the front lines. They lead by modelling, congruence of word and deed and will advocate at every chance to anyone who will listen.

Staying in the status quo is not what prophets and barbarians want. They feed off of new ideas, new possibilities and a chance to change systems for the better. As they get focused on new ideas, managers take over. The results still show positive gains. Managers try to create systems, policies and procedures to keep getting the results they see. The problem is that the prophet and barbarians know there is a half- life to most ideas and then they will want to create something new. Managers, seeing results, want to keep things going as it is.

Ah, the “Bureaucratic” stage emerges. The bureaucrat’s role is to say, “No,” to any changes. They have seen results. The results have peaked. The bureaucrat doesn’t see the intellectual horsepower that has gone on to learn about these new ideas. Bureaucrats don’t like risk and believe what was successful before will continue to be successful in the future.

“There’s as much risk in doing nothing as in doing something.”

                                                                                 –Trammel Crow

How many times have you been in a workplace or meeting when a great idea surfaces? How many times has the reception of the new idea been lukewarm at best? The ‘dirty dozens’ are voiced telling the person why the idea won’t work. Meanwhile, the energy for ideas goes down and the profits and/or results go down right along with it.

Next up is the “Aristocracy” phase. The knowledge, creativity and energy of the very people the organisation needs are gone. The results are bottoming out. The aristocracy’s role is to build armies to protect. Sometimes in business, “golden parachutes” (buyout packages) are granted to remove leaders. In education, leaders are sometimes removed, although no golden parachutes are typically given there, except for perhaps a superintendent or two.

So, what is an answer? Notice I didn’t say ‘the’ answer. In times of change, we need multiple pathways to solve problems – not only one. Business has quicker feedback loops than education. It is called profitability and staying in business. In social institutions like education, there is a longer and sometimes more dangerous feedback loop because of the increased time of the delay.

One book that helped me understand a way to deal with this natural cycle of organisations is Break-Point and Beyond, by George Land and Beth Jarman. They state, “For those willing to move ahead with conscious awareness of the natural laws of change, the future offers unparalleled opportunity to reshape our lives, our organisations and our world into what we want.” As I remember the graphic in the book, just past recognising the decrease in results, look for new prophets and barbarians to initiate a new cycle.

So, here are a few questions you might want to think about in your organisation:

• How do you identify and listen to the prophets and barbarians?

• How do you increase talent density in your organisation?

• What might you do to prepare during the management stage for the future?

• Do you try pilot programs to see if a new idea might work?

• Is there enough psychological safety in the system to promote and hear diverse ideas?

In Miller’s book there are ways to identify people in each stage, how to get along with people in each stage and how to lead people who report to you.

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

                                                                                           –John Shedd

In the past, staying in safe harbors and learning basic skills was enough for a stable future. NOT NOW. Whatever your situation – whether a student, teacher, military member or vocational career, you will need to continue learning. You will probably need to learn at a faster pace as technology, environment and job requirements change and accelerate.

Now, back to the red line. George Land’s Theory of Transformation suggests that most leaders get stuck in a phase of growth that no longer serves them. They don’t know how to integrate the new and different which was previously excluded. I liked what he titled a job in 1992: Vice-President of the Possible.

Creativity will continue to be a vital attribute in the future. Land and Jarman write that a second breakpoint is where we see connections from similar and dissimilar issues rather than advancing what we already know. These quantum jumps in thinking abound if you are open to looking for them. Think of the effect Uber has had on the taxicab business or how digital technology changed developing film for photographs. (Young people now don’t remember waiting several days for a film to be developed!)

As I think about education, we continue to change the way we deliver learning. Some think we will go back to the way things were. I say bullfeathers – I don’t think we are going back! We educators, myself included, should start thinking about the red line. What is the next iteration?

What is needed for my grandkids’ futures? Tell me the basics of 2030 and I am your guy. Land and Jarman write, “CREATIVITY IS NOT ONLY A NATURAL PROCESS—IT’S THE NATURAL PROCESS.” Nature adapts.

Here are the traps posited in Land and Jarman’s book:

Trap Number 1: Measurements Become the Mission

Trap Number 2: Past Assumptions Go Unquestioned

Trap Number 3: Embedded Investments

Trap Number 4: Blaming Others

Trap Number 5: Maximising Profit

Trap Number 6: Information Filtering

Trap Number 7: Tight Control

Do any of these traps ring a bell? Richard Pascale, in Managing on the Edge, wrote, “Nothing Fails Like Success.” I think that is what Miller’s work indicates. Success tends to dampen the need or desire for change, causing us to get complacent. One of my favorite quotes is:

Life is change. Growth is optional, choose wisely.”

                                                                  –Karen Clark

I just finished reading No Rules Rules by Hastings & Meyer. In education there are limitations that business does not have. However, this book is full of creative ideas that can be adapted.

One of these ideas is to Increase Talent Density. How do we attract and retain the best talent? What I read is that, currently, experienced teachers and leaders are leaving education, especially if they can retire. That means less experienced staff will continue to be a higher percentage of educators. How are we developing those new to the profession? How are we supporting them in schools or wherever we share learning? Are systems in place to share repertoire from experienced staff and share new ideas from less experienced staff?

A second idea is to increase candor. Educators generally are really nice people. When I was living in Minnesota, we called it, ‘Minnesota Nice.’ We can be nice AND we can need to talk about real issues, real data, real learning without fear of being labeled an outcast or a crazy maverick. How do we develop our environment to listen to and possibly learn from mavericks? They might have a workable answer.

When consulting or coaching leaders, I often say, “Talk to your new people.” If they trust you, they will tell you what the culture feels like and will ask questions like, “Why do you do it this way?” Once people have been in a system for a couple of years, consider that that way may be one of the ways it’s done here, but not the only way. It may be time to challenge the way we do things and how we might do it differently or better.

I strongly suggest reading Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety in The Fearless Organisation. We want a culture for adults to learn from each other without blame and shame. We want a culture for students so that mistakes can be learned from without fear of being ridiculed. I heard Tom Peters once say, “The chance of a new idea is inversely proportional to being shot.” NOT literally, but figuratively in the culture.

Questions to Consider:

• Does your culture support new ideas or work to suppress them?

• Do your committee and leadership groups support expanding repertoire or put roadblocks in the way of innovation?

• Does the staff read from outside education looking for different ideas that might generate creativity?

As Austin Kleon said in Steal Like an Artist, “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.” My suggestion is the reverse Las Vegas Effect. Whatever goes on here, tell everybody. The more you tell, the more people tell you. Learn anywhere, anytime, from anyone. We will need all the ideas we can steal, read about or get from workshops.

So, go get ‘em. Change how you do things and change the results!

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Dr William Sommers

Bill has been an administrator at the middle school, high school, central office and at the university level working in leadership preparation programs and doctoral faculties. As a teacher he worked with self-paced physics, math, and chemistry teaching methods. With over forty years of experience in teaching and leading schools, he has actively extended his learning from educational to include business models. He has been a consultant with Cognitive Coaching, Adaptive Schools, Brain Research, Poverty issues, Leadership Development and Conflict to Consensus models. He can be contacted at: sommersb4@gmail.com