To implement change is possibly the hardest thing that anyone ever has to do, if they choose to do it. Moreover, change itself is a dangerous thing – be careful for what you wish for; you might very well just get it.
Ok, enough of the cryptic, truistic sentences. What did I really mean? Change is difficult to implement – that’s a truism – everyone accepts the inertia of existing systems, the power of existing incentive structures, and the risk that comes along with the changes in incentives. The fact that there are frequent changes in the bureaucracy is itself a minor miracle – proving that there are internal entrepreneurs who are willing to take risks and implement changes. This description is by itself, too simplistic.
The changemaker has to mobilize people to his/her own side – get others to believe strongly, that a change is required, and to follow him/her into believing in the change, and to accept the consequences that come with the changes. The changemaker has to engage existing stakeholders in the system, and convince them that the new system to be birthed, with their own set of indicators, will not cause them to lose their previous positions, and that they can benefit in the new paradigms. Winning everyone over – that is clearly not a task for the fainthearted. Along the way, the changemaker will encounter cynicism and criticism – people who may have tried something similar before, failed and sidelined; there are others who might have something to lose in the new situation. At every stage towards change, the changemaker has to find ways to neutralize these criticisms, either by bringing them on board, or circumvent them, or summon additional resources (having someone superior in position to the critics helps).
What does mobilisation mean? That means meeting people, and empowering them with the permission to influence others, as the original changemaker does. The original changemaker has to be ok with the idea that their followers are going to be, if not more, popular than he originally is. As time progresses, the relationship between the original changemaker and others will change along too. The changemaker has to have a persevering personality – to have the emotional stamina to withstand the many meetings and responses that would be expected in a change exercise. The exhaustion is to be expected; the changemaker has to find ways to recharge and continue with the journey.
Movements splinter when some of the followers realize that they can do the same things without acknowledgement or subordination to the original changemaker. “Hey, the [changemaker] is not as great as I thought he was at the beginning. I can do this on my own if I wanted to.” In a bureaucratic setting of risk-aversion, the likelihood of such changes happening might be smaller, if only because people are ‘used’ to the idea of following orders from someone else. The hierarchical nature of bureaucracy lends itself to less division as power is neatly territorialised – everyone individual has a demarcated sphere of influence; to breach into the spheres of others require permission from different parties. That is why change in a bureaucratic setting is also harder – especially if the change cuts across different ‘territories’.
Change also has unintended consequences – hence the, “be careful for what you wish for – you might just get it.” For example, in a autocratic, illiterate society, control is easy – have a few simple messages that people can understand, and everyone could live with. Improving education access, and people can learn about the misery of their situation and demand democratisation of their country. The example is certainly simplistic, if only to demonstrate that introducing the idea of change, and in empowering people to act for themselves, can result in outcomes not anticipated. Introducing empowerment in a hierarchical system could result in internal dissension and dysfunction as a whole, preventing vital functions from being performed.
The content of change is not a trivial thing, nor is it something that can be done as a sideline. In a bureaucracy, performing change is an extra burden on top of the main work that has to be done. In society, performing change is such a major activity that people start up organisations – civil society, political parties or even companies to achieve their vision of change. I don’t believe that there are many people who have the conviction to see through their own visions of change (including myself). I admire and applaud others who have done the same, and wish them well.
What are organisations for? Why is it that my blog posts have concerned itself with looking at organisation and change within the organisation? The reason is seemingly simple – that if changes do not appear in a subset of an organisation, then change in a larger setting is not as possible. Another answer because organisations are the vehicles of human effort, and thus, of initiated change. Even when our desire is to change communities, an organised effort is required on the part of the initiator(s).
I’ve been looking at organisations and why they are important starting places to think about change. In the previous post, I have identified the information-based stumbling blocks that get in the way of how information flows across the organisation. By identifying these stumbling blocks, sites of change also become clear.
The discussion of these information stumbling blocks are clearest within the organisation. When applied across society, the presence of these issues become obscured by rhetoric and vested interests. Yet the issues often remain the same – they are still about who has access to the information (or resources), and whether incentives are aligned between agents and principals. One argument justifying the existence of incentives and punishment is that they are important for signally to agents to align their motivations with those of the principals. Coercion by force becomes the chief means for compliance.
Organisations are also important starting points because they are also the final parties responsible for enacting and maintaining the different set of configurations. Going back again to the discussion on systems, indicators and assumptions need to be aligned. Advancing another step, systems are maintained by the consistency of assumptions, indicators and actions. Only when these three align can systems function in the configuration desired. When enacting change, all three must be aligned.
With this train of thought, the enactment of change cannot be done in isolation. No social movement or goal can be achieved through selfish action. Any change that happens has to insert itself into the larger system, and interact with the other components in it. Any emerging movement has to find partners in the political, public, non-profit and private sectors. There is no shortcut to change. To genuinely change the assumptions of society is a deep task. To paraphrase a quote from Adam Kahane’s Solving Tough Problems – you can’t be part of the solution if you are not part of the problem.
Movements today cannot rely solely on the intensity of their voice or the persistence of their protests. Change needs to come about through broad movements that direct their efforts towards points of leverage, and set up new indicators that expressed the desired assumptions. Have systems that allow for people to be aligned to these new indicators. Maybe the resulting system is not too different from the present. Maybe they are radically different from the present. We have little idea about the direction and shape of change.
By this point, one could suggest that the burdens for those who are creating change is too much. I have in a way, broken down the various ways in which changemaking needs to be done. I have suggested:
1. Identify present assumptions;
2. Identify indicators expressing the assumptions;
3. Identify the relationships between indicators and assumptions;
4. Identify the information flows within organisations;
5. Identify the information flows between organisations;
6. Identify the points of leverage;
7. Create new assumptions, indicators and the relationships between them;
8. Change happens as the system transits from one configuration to the new configuration of indicators and assumptions.
These things don’t quite happen linearly, but outcome for Step 8 is where most could agree. Steps 1-7 can be done in any order – start wherever is appropriate, and work out the rest along the way. The sheer amount of work required is the reason why change starts with a smaller team first that can embody the changes desired.
As an admin note, I’ll be away from 12 January to 18 January – the timing of the posts will be affected by this. I’ll probably have a post on Friday, and maybe another on 19 Jan.
Why do organisations exist? For all my discussion on organisations and change, I have not dealt with the important question of why do organisations exist in the first place. The other point I should address is why is it that I start a discussion on change-making from an organisational point of view.
With this post, I’ll answer the fundamental question first; of why do organisations exist. Organisations exist in contemporary society mainly as a way for groups of people to come together to achieve a common purpose over some period of time. This is certainly a laymen’s foundation, but it’s a decent starting point. The telos over time is what separates an organisation from a social movement.
Some responses can seem obvious – that organisations exist because there are things that need to be done by a group of people with different abilities. Is a community an organisation? I can’t say for sure. I think community deserves its own term. Communities might be one example of how people are organised, but I’m not sure that communities are telic (ends-driven, from telos) organisations, unless one were to accept a broad definition of telos. The state – the bureaucratic structure of governance – is an organisation, or a collection of organisations. Is a family an organisation? How about a tribe? They are certainly forms of human organisation – and in a loose sense, they are organisations in themselves too.
So organisations are a basic form of human activity.
A more rigorous view of human organisations advanced with Coase’s theory of the firm. Why do companies exist? Why can’t the disparate functions of the firm be parcelled out to smaller units? As I understood it, Coase was referring to transaction costs, and one way of reducing it was to have these functions incorporated under a single authority. This could presumably reduce the communication costs compared to having them outside the firm. So if dealing with internal departments was difficult, think about how much more difficult it would be if those departments were separate firms to be negotiated with.
This is also an appropriate place to talk about information and the ways the flow across the organisation. In more abstract terms, an organisation is a way for social information to be concentrated and managed in ways that result in decisions and then ultimately, in actions in the environment. The concentration, management and enactment of information are important functions of an organisation.
This also ties back in the prior discussions on indicators. The way information moves around the organisation can be represented in terms of stocks and flows – and lend themselves to systems analysis.
Information flows are the result of information asymmetry – that someone out there has more information than someone else. In the market system, prices were signals that aim to reduce information asymmetry. In the examples of the firm, having departments within the firm reduces the information asymmetry for the entire company to get something done. Achieving information flows is thus one reason for the existence of functionally-self-sufficient firms.
The other concept that comes out of this discussion on information flows is the principal-agent problem. The principal-agent problem is one representation of information asymmetry – what happens when the agent – the person acting on behalf of the principal, who is often a superior responsible for the agent – acts for himself. This happens when the agent has typically more information about actual circumstances, and can often exploit the situation for their own benefit, and not for the principal’s benefit. When people talk about aligning incentives, or reducing corruption, the abstract issue is often those of information asymmetry or the principal-agent problem.
And organisations do not stand on their own. They are interacting with other organisations in society, with other companies, community groups, and politicians. The internal dynamics within any organisation come into contact with other organisations, and with the physical environment. The issues of information asymmetry, principal-agent problems, information management and decisions-making all come together in reality. Without first identifying the nature of the monsters we are looking at, our actions are often impotent, or worse, cause issues to deteriorate.
With this post, I hope I’ve clarified why I’ve gone through a long and tedious process. The next post will directly address why I’m looking at change within organisations specifically.