Allostasis: Stability through Change

According to a very unreliable source (twitter!) physicist Richard Feynman said:

“You’re under no obligation to remain the same person you were a year ago, a month ago, or even a day ago. You are here to create yourself, continuously.”

Probably not an accurate quote but makes a useful point; in order to maintain our identity we must continually renew ourselves, adapt ourselves to our changing circumstances and adapt our changing circumstances to ourselves.

Paradoxical perhaps but in order to remain ourselves we must change.

I debated some years ago with the CEO of a public sector organisation the best time to start a process of transformation. Inevitably I suppose my argument was for

“NOW, this isn’t going to get better”

their argument was for

“when the new Senior XXX has been appointed and got settled in”.

Now, there are some problems with this so let us consider them:

  • in any reasonable sized organisation there will always be one “Senior XXX” leaving, joining, on leave, off sick, settling in, being trained. In fact if you have more than one “Senior XXX” they will collectively meet more than one of these conditions – perpetually;
  • why on earth would you want them to settle in? By the time they have done so they have become part of the problem you are trying to fix (and the current culture ALWAYS has the high gain amplifier on norms!);
  • if you are appointing somebody into the current situation and waiting for them to settle in so they can reinforce the existing situation, are you confused about what you really want?

So, we have established that the situation will rarely be truly stable AND the greater the stability the more inertia must be overcome and you didn’t really want it stable anyway!

(Sideways, if you DID want it stable, why are you talking about transformation?)

Underlying all of this is the delusion we have pursued for 100 or more years of Tayloristic scientific management (pursuit of efficiency rooted in a mechanistic understanding of organisation) coupled to Weberian bureaucracy (pursuit of order and accountability). Perhaps 100 or so years ago, in a relatively slow moving economic (if not social) environment there was greater merit in these things, if nothing else as necessary developments in thinking about how (not?) to run large-scale organisations. However, today it must be considered that they may be necessary but are no longer sufficient for our needs and those of our organisations (whether local, national, private or governmental).

The traditional (if I may call it that) role of management as controlling a bureaucratic system is obsolete. The continuing attempts to assert such control bursts through in the unnuanced interactions we all experience with digital systems – the chatbot that says no and the inability of an employee to answer our question or solve our problem even (or especially) when they KNOW the bureaucratic response is absurd! Both digital assistant and employee are trapped in an inadequate system.

We need to reappreciate the role of management and understand them as allostatic evolutionists. What??

Simply, the role of management (and the role of the manager) is to apprehend the purpose of the organisation, enable the arrangement of all of its resources (human, material, monetary) around processes designed to fulfil that purpose and monitor the outcomes (addressing the question does outcome fulfil purpose). Observation of the outcomes means the manager can direct the evolution of the processes, skills, behaviours, resource allocations and so on to close the gap between what is being achieved and what is desired.

This ability to observe, evaluate, choose and direct is powered by our contemporary power to capture data and convert it into information to inform decisions – and to do so quite literally at the speed of light. Our ability to manage complex organisations and situations in close to real time demands that we do things differently. The manager is no longer in a position of omniscience in relation to what is happening, increasingly that capability is, and can be, made on a highly distributed basis. Data enables autonomy optimisation in ways undreamed of in earlier times meaning that the organisation can make decisions both far faster and far closer to the customer than ever before.

The role of the manager is to create the desired future, employing the tensions of the present to stimulate the adaptive response.