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Energizing a restructured work force.

Without turbulence living systems stagnate, losing their ability to adapt and ultimately to survive.

The restructuring is over. Employees feel secure, reassured that this change was for the best, and they now are working at top productivity. The organization's leadership is viewed as credible, trustworthy and visionary. You can finally relax in the knowledge that your job as a communication change agent is finished.


Not likely.

A more likely scenario is one that has the restructured work force feeling unsettled and skeptical, not at all sure that this current change was the answer to meeting the challenges of the future. After all, weren't quality circles, teamwork, TQM and empowerment also heralded as the solution? Employees are wondering if the leadership really knows where the organization is going, and management is seen as out of touch with what is happening on the front lines.

As a communicator, your work has only just begun.

Employees in a restructured work force are waiting to be energized, to be given a framework for past change and a vision of future transformation that makes sense to them. The greatest challenge communicators now face is to understand that the current world view of the organization may no longer serve that purpose.

You can't energize a restructured work force under a model of reality that no longer fits anyone's experience of reality. You can't help people cope with a world of increasing complexity and change under an old paradigm that depends on stability and order.

The Shifting World View

The Newtonian view of the world, with its materialist and analytical assumptions, held until early this century when new theories and findings in science ran counter to the prevailing paradigm. Instead of the solid and stable system embodied by Newton's laws, the new sciences describe a world of chaos, discontinuous change and powerful relationships.

Our perceptions of the world of business - organization, management, leadership, the work force - are also being transformed, with profound consequences for those of us who try to help others make sense of a world turned upside down.

From Organizations-as-Machines to Organizations-as-Living Systems

In the 17th century, scientists began to refer to the universe as a large clock, and the metaphor of a machine was used to describe organizations. Successful enterprises were said to "run smoothly," like "well-oiled machines." Even today we still talk about the "tools and techniques" needed to "re-engineer" our companies.

What metaphors do you use to describe your organization? For most organizations, the mechanical model has outlived its usefulness. Modern organizations need to be intelligent, resilient, adaptive and flexible - all attributes found not in machines, but in living systems. The first step to energizing a restructured work force may be as simple as changing the metaphors you use to describe organizational culture from those of a clock or an engine to models of living systems - an orchestra, a baseball team or a reef.

One of the things we know about all living systems is that turbulence is essential for maintaining health and vigor. Without turbulence, living systems stagnate, losing their ability to adapt and ultimately to survive. When an organization is experiencing disruption by internal or external forces, it can either try to hold on to stability, and lose its ability to adapt and survive, or it can respond in a dynamic manner by using that creative tension.

Complex adaptive systems flourish in turbulence when they have a collective focus and a strong sense of identity. These are the same factors necessary to give an organization stability at its core while encouraging information to flow in and out. The communicator's role is to help create that collective focus and identity in the organization through a constant interpretation of its history, present activities and future aspirations - and to get employees to participate in the process by asking for their past remembrances, current success stories and visions of a desired future.

Information is the nutrient of complex adaptive systems. It provides the turbulence, the disequilibrium, that pushes the system to transform. Communicators must be the champions of information access. Information has to be everywhere in the organization to sustain it. People need access to information that no one could predict they would ever need to know. Only when information belongs to everyone can people shift and organize rapidly and effectively around changes in customers, competitors or environments.

Communicators also need to help leadership embrace instability. To a large degree, a leader's believability is tested by how he or she reacts to volatile conditions. Leaders who are steady and focused in turbulent times help their employees understand that chaos, and even an occasional crisis, is an expected part of the business cycle. In fact, the best opportunities for positive change come not with stability, but with the instability created when information is integrated and the organization seeks novel and innovative ways to meet the new challenges.

From Predictability to Uncertainty

In the mechanical paradigm that defined science for more than 300 years, all of nature was knowable - subject to observation and the laws of mathematics. We operated with the conviction that there was always a right answer to be found if we looked long and hard enough. In our educational system we stressed facts and rewarded those who found the one right answer to questions. If we couldn't find perfect solutions when we managed enterprises, we hired consultants who told us that they could.

The new science states that there is no objective reality, no one formula, no right answer and no predictability. In our business enterprises, we also are finding that it is futile to continue to search for the single solution to all our future challenges. If you look back over the last dozen years, it's easy to identify the attempts we've made to find that one right answer. We've grabbed onto the hottest new fad - from quality circles, to excellence, to customer service, to total quality, to employee empowerment, to teams, to re-engineering - thinking that this time we had the answer. While these are all fine concepts, tools and techniques, none of them has proved to be the panacea we hoped for.

Communicators can position a work force to succeed in a world of uncertainty and unpredictability by helping people accept and explore, and even have fun with, the ambiguity that accompanies not knowing - to reflect and experiment with the interplay of multiple right approaches. The past is not wrong. It is just one right way. What are some other right ways? The way we've always done it is fine, but if we hadn't always done it that way, would we do it now? The current restructuring is not the answer. It is our best approach for right now, and we should already be thinking about the next transformation.

Moving away from a model in which leadership made all the decisions and knew all the answers takes a willingness by leaders to be seen as highly vulnerable. No one can predict the future. These are confusing times for all of us, especially for those who are trying to make major decisions in a sea of change. No single leader can fully absorb and comprehend the emerging and colliding forces of speed, quality, customer satisfaction, innovation, global competition, diversity and technology. As Jack Welch, CEO of GE says, "If you're not confused, you don't know what's going on."

From Control to Boundaries

Chaos theory studies the relationship between order and chaos - states that are now viewed as containing one another - so that systems can jump into chaos and yet be held in bounds by forces that give it order. A system is defined as chaotic when there is no predictability where it will be next. But if the chaotic system is observed over a long enough period of time, a pattern arises in which certain boundaries are found to exist. The force that determines the shape of the boundary is called a "strange attractor," and although a system will never land in the same place twice, it also will never go beyond the pattern set by the strange attractor.

What creates boundaries in the boundary-less organization? What facilitates decision making when rules and regulations are reduced or eliminated? How do you control an organization in tumultuous times?

The answers to these questions call for radical redefinitions of control. Leaders who influence us the most in the future will be those who understand that control is less about rules, regulations and rewards - or the struggle to keep people "in line" - and more about understanding the role that guiding principles and organizational values play in forming the behavior of employees. Just as the magnetic pull of the attractor influences a chaotic system into a discernible pattern so do strongly held values influence the judgments and actions of a work force by creating a boundary beyond which behavior will not go.

As a communicator, you have probably already been involved with creating formal corporate mission and vision statements. What most of our organizations do not need are additional statements, mottos or laminated cards. What we do need is more alignment between stated values and organizational actions. At 3M, scientists are encouraged to use 15 percent of their time on any project that interests them, divisions are required to generate 30 percent of their revenue from new products produced over the past four years; they have an internal venture capital fund, and a dual-career track to encourage innovators to remain and not move into management. I don't know if 3M even has a formal values statement, but I know what they value.

Communicators help create the mechanisms that bring values to life and to daily action by encouraging executives to first develop the behavioral example and then to talk about the value it demonstrates.

From Reductionism to Relationships

Central to the scientific world view is the attempt to understand reality by reducing complex wholes to more easily grasped parts. Much of the success of modern science occurred because of this approach. Instead of trying to understand how an entire organism works, scientists concentrate, rather, on specific aspects or parts of that organism, on the function of certain organs, or on the workings of a single cell.

A quantum mechanical view of reality moves toward holism, systems and relationships. Particles come into being and are observed only in relation to something else. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, blasting the old scientific method based on the sanctity of observed phenomena, stated that nothing can be observed at the sub-atomic level without being changed. Such is the new found power of relationship.

What business are you in? However else you answer the question, I believe that you are in the relationship business. We all are. The quality of relationships developed between employers and employees, unions and management, workers and customers, international operations and corporate headquarters, etc., will define organizational success. Robert Haas, CEO of Levi Strauss, says, "We are at the center of a seamless web of mutual responsibility and collaboration...a seamless partnership, with interrelationships and mutual commitments."

What kind of relationship energizes a work force? Jan Carlson, the head of SAS, talks about the need to create an atmosphere in which people feel that they are respected, that you have faith in them, even that you love them. "You have to manage by love. Whereas, if you manage by fear, people will shrink and perform far below their capability, and that will not create any profitability or competitiveness for your company."

Our organizations are living systems, existing in a turbulent environment that constantly tests their abilities to survive. Business enterprises are facing constant transition to cope with the forces of fierce global competition, dizzying technological advances, vacillating economies and highly sophisticated and demanding customers. The years leading to the turn of the century will witness more change, complexity and uncertainty than our organizations have ever faced. To meet the challenge of the new millennium, we must create flexible, resilient and adaptive structures.

The secret to being a great motivator is knowing that you can't motivate another person. The secret to energizing employees is, again, knowing you can't energize them from the outside in. What you can do is give employees a framework for today's reality, so that they have a model that validates their experience. And you can help individuals develop a strong personal sense of purpose, honor that purpose, and allow it full play in an organization. Motivation then emanates naturally from within each person. As every individual sense of purpose finds its niche within organizational vision and values, a true interconnection emerges. That deep connection becomes the internal mechanism that sparks a restructured work force to energize itself.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker, consultant and seminar leader on the "human side" of organizational change. She can be reached by phone at (510) 943-7850, fax at (510) 524-9577, E-mail at, or website:
COPYRIGHT 1997 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Goman, Carol Kinsey
Publication:Communication World
Date:Feb 1, 1997
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