Zen, Motorcycles, and the Art of Organizational Change Management

zen01My post the other day on Chaos and Complexity led me into a client conversation about organizational change.  This in turn reminded me of an article I had published back in 1996 in Hewlett-Packard’s Perspectives magazine.  I’ve also said before that occasionally I will dig into one or more of my passions and hobby’s (music, scuba, motorcycling) and relate this back to the work and transformation of IT organizations.  Anyway, I dug out a copy of the original article, have done a minor update, and include it here as today’s post.

In his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” (a book that has had enormous influence on my approach to work and life), Robert Pirsig used a motorcycle as a metaphor to explore philosophy, quality, and the meaning of life.  I’d like to extend the metaphor to examine the nature of organizational change, and discuss why conventional change-management wisdom (which mostly surfaced in the last century) when applied to today’s complex organizational context may lead you dangerously off course.

The motorcycle is, of course, a machine.  It’s constructed from components, assemblies and sub-assemblies. Power is generated in an internal combustion engine (typically, although there are electric-powered motorcycles, and even one powered by a helicopter jet engine – famously owned and ridden by Jay Leno), transferred through gears, cogs and chains.  We can understand this classic machine by describing its parts and how they fit together.  The motorcycle behaves according to simple laws of Newtonian mechanics.  If you want to turn left, you steer to the left. That is, until you reach a certain speed.  Above about 10 mph, (depending upon the size and geometry of the motorcycle) something strange happens.  If you want to turn left, you steer right!  Above a certain speed, what looks like a simple machine operating according to predictable laws becomes a complex set of interacting systems that behave neither linearly nor intuitively.

And this is the problem with conventional change management wisdom.  In the early and mid-industrial revolution, organizations were relatively simple and stable systems.  They did behave somewhat linearly.  Like machines, they were divided into functions and sub-functions.  Strategy was formulated at the top, work performed at the bottom, with middle management interpreting between the executives and workers,  smoothly transferring power and information up and down the organization, like cogs and chains.  Line folk did the work and staff handled control and support functions.  You can see this view reflected in the mechanistic methods for organizational change that were popularized by researchers such as Kurt Lewin.

If you want small changes, the conventional wisdom held, then do incremental things at the lower parts of the organization. Large change required radical interventions at higher levels.  Even the traditional language of change speaks of ‘unfreezing’, ‘refreezing’, and of ‘resistance’, as if describing a rusty or gummed up machine.

As information and knowledge replace minerals and machinery as industry’s fuel, however, organizations are becoming increasingly complex and dynamic.  As with the motorcycle, the intuitive way you steered the organization in simpler times no longer works.  Small interventions, such as 6 Sigma or Lean Manufacturing, can lead to massive change.  Large interventions, such as business process re-engineering and restructuring often fail completely, as the organization springs back to its original form like a motorcycle fork spring rebounding from a pothole.

Back to the motorcycle and the phenomenon called countersteering.  Most motorcyclists don’t even know this is happening unless they have been trained to use counter-steering to avoid becoming road kill.  So why aren’t they constantly careening off the road?  Under normal conditions, this counter-steering effect is very subtle.  Ask a biker how he steers and he will say, “I lean.”  The reality is, the only way to lean at anything above parking-lot speeds (unless you are racing and prepared to hang off the side of the motorcycle – not recommended for street riding) is by applying subtle pressure to the handlebars in the direction opposite the intended turn.  The biker can get by for years doing this unconsciously – until there is an emergency, and the hapless biker who doesn’t understand countersteering, is unable to turn sufficiently quickly to avoid the hazard.  And so it is with managing change.  Doing what seems intuitive gets you by until organizational complexity, or ambiguity of the change reach a certain pitch.  The “nuke the process, take no prisoners” re-engineering approach fails miserably and expensively because it assumes machine-like organizational qualities.  Those managing change in today’s dynamic organizations must discard the conventional wisdom.  They must forget mechanistic images of the organization, recognize the inherent complexities, and draw instead from the sciences of chaos, complexity and ecology.  For example, chaos with its ‘strange attractors‘ explains why major interventions may lead to little or no change, while small changes can produce radical results – the so-called ‘butterfly effect.’

By approaching organizations as complex, living organisms, rather than as machines, managers recognize that they can’t predict the outcome to any given intervention.  As such, informed managers approach their change tasks in a more incremental, holistic and organic fashion, and realize that they aren’t really managing change in the conventional sense of the word.  They are more sensitive to the complex interactions between systems, and use whole systems approaches that get as many stakeholders involved in the change as possible.  Shared Vision and values become the ‘genetic code’ that shapes behavior throughout the organization, rather than detailed change designs engineered from above.  Information becomes a source or both order and creativity.

While the mechanistic approach treats work structures as permanent, and transition structures as temporary (pilot projects, change teams, and so on) the organic approach has fluid work structures (teams, self-organizing networks) and permanent transition-support structures (social networks, communities of interest).

Chaos sensitizes us to look for patterns rather than rules. If motorcycle steering reverses at a certain speed, we should expect to find other examples of non-linearity in control systems.  We find it in supersonic flight where initial attempts resulted in mysterious crashes – until someone figured out the different control dynamics as you break the sound barrier.  In Pirsig’s words, “Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight.”  It’s good for seeing where you’ve been.  It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.

There are other change-management lessons to draw from motorcycles.  The safest way to corner on a motorcycle is to counter-steer into the turn and then gradually open the throttle through the turn.  Constant throttle, or even worse, reducing the throttle in a turn (the intuitive thing to do) leads to wobbling, and an unfortunate tendency to leave the road.  This is explained by paraphrasing Newton’s first law – changing direction requires energy.  If the energy is not replaced by opening the throttle, the speed of the bike drops, the lean angle changes, and the bike becomes unstable.  Similarly, organizational change requires additional energy.  Rarely, however, do managers budget the extra time and resources needed for the change.  People are expected to do their normal workload, plus assimilate change – a recipe for frustration and failure.

Managers can learn a lot from motorcycles – particularly if they recognize the trap of treating organizations mechanistically and look instead to chaos, complexity theory and ecology as a source of change-management wisdom.

19 thoughts on “Zen, Motorcycles, and the Art of Organizational Change Management

  1. Vaughan,

    There is also the danger of riding in crowds. The temptation is to follow the other guy’s line and stop riding your ride. If they don’t know what they are doing, fail to heed the physics of countersteering, and crash, you can end up on top of them. May not be the exact reason so many companies decided to take big risks on derivatives and failed – probably more like competition than groupthink – but companies that rode their own ride – like Wells Fargo – seemed to have avoided the group crash.

    Personally, I ride with a few people I know well and have ridden thousands of miles alongside; trust in one another guides us. While it sounds elitist or snobby, I avoid the group rides with people I don’t know; trust just isn’t there.


  2. Tim, I love your “rode their own ride” analogy! I did some work with Dr. Greg Berns, a professor at Emory University and author of “Iconoclast: A Neuroscientist Reveals How to Think Differently” which gives a great perspective on people who “rode their own ride” and how they got to be that way, and how effective it was for them.

    A great observation – thank you!

  3. Hi Vaughan. I tried to comment on this when I woke up this morning from my iphone. Ohwell.

    This is brilliant Vaughan. I’ve been waiting for you to post on this for quite some time. Would love to see the nuts and bolts of how you introduce change into the chaos of highly fluid, flexible 21st century enterprises.

  4. Thank you so much, Susan – you’ve made my day!

    In keeping with the post, I don’t think it’s so much the “nuts and bolts” as it is the messaging, communities and conversations needed to stimulate the intended change. To your suggestion, I am working on a series of follow-up posts, including a couple of podcasts/video posts with guest subject matter experts, that will get into some specific ideas and techniques.

  5. Vaughan,
    I will look up the book by Berns.
    BTW: I also loved “Zen” and have never forgotten it, but am not sure I ever understood it completelly. Interesting guy, Pirsig. Maybe you should get him onstage with you ;).

  6. I don’t know that I ever understood the book fully. Over the many years, I’ve re-read it multiple times, getting more and more out of it each time. There’s also a lot of stuff on the web that discusses, debates and amplifies Pirsig’s original text. You should also try his follow on book, “Lila” – a real tour de force on the nature of quality.

    Some of the more practical things I literally took away from the book included a real respect for preventative maintenance; for savoring the moment, no matter what I’m doing; for cleaning up my tools and workspace as soon as I’ve finished something, and really appreciating fine workmanship.

  7. I don’t remember finishing Lila, but I think I might have. On top of Zen, it was overload.
    I took away the same lessons as you, but also never forgot the image of the “edge” and the importance of quality.

  8. Yeah, Lila was fascinating, but heavy going! As with Zen and the Art, there are passages of sheer poetry and incredible insight, plus quite a bit of noise! Worth the effort, though. Like riding a motorcycle in the cold and rain – you wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but you’ll put up with it occasionally for the sake of the overall experience and benefits!

    I think books like that teach us something about seeing the big picture, and hanging in there even if it does not seem to be going anywhere or making sense.

  9. It’s the journey, not the destination. I say and I believe it, when it comes to riding. The last time I rode this year, it was 23 degrees and sunny. Why not ride to breakfast? I came home through a light dusting of snow up the dirt road to my driveway and into the garage. It’s been a lonely sight to see the bike parked there ever since.

  10. Sorry mate, my blood’s obviously thinner than yours! I consider 50 degrees to be a little on the cool side!

  11. Thanks for your comment, Jamie! I’ve been fortunate to be an observer and participant in many IT transformations – some successful, some less so, all of them instructional. Once you get your head into the chaos/complexity/organic/emergent view of the world, things start to make a different kind of sense – and the responsibility of leading a change, or of being an agent of change, become far less intimidating!

  12. Great post. I’m working on a short book that incorporates my own experience/thinking/mapping around the themes of complexity theory applied to human organization – some ways of introducing and explaining it with applications that are adaptive and scalable. I’ll be guest teaching a grad class on leadership and intend to offer my talk in this small book form to students as part of my experimentation with evolving on-demand publishing.

    Your insights and references about the hazards of misapplied leadership ideas are well worth noting. It is painfully common to hear execs talk about innovation and such while building forms that are not suited to current conditions.

    You are likely familiar with Dave Snowden’s work in this area. He calls this approach cynefin and among the people I’ve engaged with, Dave and his group seem to get what this is about without being trendy or naive. You can find his stuff here: http://www.cognitive-edge.com/

  13. Thanks for making the connection to Dave Snowden’s work. Cognitive Edge is one of the blogs I follow, and I was aware of the Cynefin Framework, though not as much as I clearly need to be. I will dig deeper!

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