Unprecedented change requires dynamic ways of working

What a time to be alive! We are currently living through an unprecedented time in the history of human civilisation. The global crises that are threatening not only our way of life but our very survival. Everywhere you look, from the environment, to the economy, there is civil unrest and now pandemics. Some might say that this is a sign of the end of the world, but I believe it’s a sign for the beginning of a better one. Crisis precipitates transformation and change. So how can leaders help to navigate through the current crises and challenges that business is currently facing?

Dealing with new external threats requires a dynamic internal change for businesses. Like how a species survive in the natural world through adaptation, the business also needs to adapt to the environment they are in so that it can evolve and survive. A business can be viewed as a living organism; it has interdependent parts within in and its ability to interact with its environment and wider systems is vital for its survival. Surviving and evolving requires more than simply just applying systemic thinking to a challenge or problem at an executive level; instead, it’s embedding it throughout the whole business.

The systemic approach to business is grounded in the General Systems Theory, developed by Philosopher and biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy in the 1930s. It brings together many different theories from many different disciplines including psychology, sociology, psychotherapy, mathematics, and the traditional sciences and quantum physics among others. The concept however goes much deeper and further back in time. It’s an idea that can be traced back to Aristotle (384-322 BC) who believed that there is a metaphysical and hierarchal order in nature and argued that ‘the whole is greater than the sum of the parts’.

A business is a series of self-organising systems overlapping each other – this could be across teams, within teams, with stakeholders. Moving outwards, the business is positioned with a cultural context and part of wider self-organising systems. The parts of a business cannot be understood without studying the whole as each part is dynamically interrelated and interdependent. The business can only survive if all the essential parts are maintained within their limits; likened to the homeostasis principle, where a balance between stability and instability is optimal for performance. When instability occurs, there is a stress response, like how our bodies respond to stress. When a business experiences stress, it goes into a state of fight, flight, freeze response which is felt through the whole system, from top to bottom, inside and out. The purpose of this is to deal with the immediate threat, which can be helpful and can lead to effective transformation and change, but this state is not sustainable. Any system, whether it be our bodies, the environment or business, cannot survive let alone thrive in a state of prolonged stress. Dynamic transformation and change are the only options to bring the system back into balance and optimal performance.

Through critical reflection, culture can be changed and transformed to meet the demands of the external one. Any part of the system has an important role in keeping a homeostatic balance or can have an effect in provoking disequilibrium that can lead to evolution. Just one element can cause such disequilibrium that it sends the system and all the systems around it into an uncontained spin – just look at what COVID-19 achieved! But even out of this apparent threat and chaos, new and better ways of working have evolved. Those that don’t evolve, don’t survive.

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