The Seeds of Change

Dec 4, 2014

by Jim Elliott

Just before the turn of the century (the 21st century) a number of leadership-gurus started turning heads by talking about the organic nature of organizations, and how traditional theories of organizational change were proving to be wrong. One of these leaders was Margaret Wheatley who, in her book Leadership and the New Science, said:

The dominant world view of Western culture – the world as machine – doesn’t help us to live well in this world any longer. We have to see the world differently if we are to live in it more harmoniously. Leadership and the New Science, (p. 172), Margaret Wheatley, 1999

She went on to say that an organization’s “…behaviors don’t change just by announcing new values. We move only gradually into being able to act congruently with those values.” (p 130-131)

This view of organizations as something other than machines was also expressed by Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline and the Dance of Change.

In an article (Learning for a Change) published by Fast Company Magazine in May 1999, Senge brought his view of the organic nature of companies to the casual reader. He said:

We need to think less like managers and more like biologists. …Companies are actually living organisms, not machines. …Perhaps treating companies like machines keeps them from changing… We keep bringing in mechanics – when what we need are gardeners. We keep trying to drive change – when what we need to do is cultivate change.

If we approach our organizations as mechanical systems we develop high level leaders who drive change through formal, top-down change programs. If we approach our organizations as living systems we develop leaders at all levels who approach change as a natural part of the growth of the company.

Senge goes on to point out that in nature “nothing that grows starts large; it always starts small.” In his view, in the natural world, “…no one is in charge making the growth occur. Instead, growth occurs as a result of the interplay of diverse forces.”

These forces are not under the control of any one person including the person at the top of the organizational structure, the “leader.” They are the natural forces that exist within every organization.

In Senge’s opinion, we often “use the word ‘leader’ to mean ‘executive’: The leader is the person at the top. That definition says that leadership is synonymous with a position. And if leadership is synonymous with a position, then it doesn’t matter what a leader does. All that matters is where a leader sits.”

Historically we have assigned to the leader the power to make organizational changes, to take an organization in a certain direction, or to know what changes are needed even when the people within the organization can’t see the need for change. The leader was seen as all-powerful and all-knowing. Change efforts were directed from the top, handed down from on-high and, more often than not, doomed to failure.

If all that matters is where a leader sits, there is little hope that strong leadership will be found at the line level, where leadership is most important.

The Wheatley and Senge research tells us a number of important things about organizations:

  1. We must view organizations as organic rather than mechanical structures.
  2. Change comes about through growth from inside the organization rather than through a mechanical repair of existing systems.
  3. To quote Senge, “Just as nothing in nature starts big; the way to start creating changes is with a pilot group – a growth seed.” Start small.
  4. For these seeds of change to survive and grow, organizations must have line leaders (people at the heart of the value-generating process – who design, produce, and sell products; who provide services; who talk to customers) who will nurture and care for the change efforts.
  5. Meaningful and lasting change comes from inside the organization.
  6. The planting of seeds in areas that are surrounded by gardeners in the form of committed and motivated people is much more likely to result in lasting change than programs that are the result of top down efforts.

Those of us who are trying to bring new ways of thinking into an organization will do well to bear in mind the organic nature of change.  Whether your goal is to bring the Leadership Diamond into the decision making process of your organization, or to change a process or service that results in improved customer satisfaction and a better bottom line, every change effort should consider the value of planting seeds, and developing line leaders who act as gardeners.