I am struck by how we think about the pace and direction of change and how different it is from what we see in nature. We often see organizational change as an incremental event. We set a direction and move step-by-step toward accomplishing the goal. As staff members, we measure the importance of a change initiative by its visible progress. If a change initiative stopped being talked about or lost focus we perceive it as no longer important. Change in nature, however, works quite differently and once again, it’s something we can learn from.
Change in Nature is filled with leaps and stalls
Change in nature is filled with rest cycles as well as expansion. For example, it’s spring in Minnesota and my flowers are growing by inches every day. Two months ago they were resting under frozen ground, waiting for things to warm up and create conditions conducive for their growing cycle. It’s easy to understand that change isn’t just a straight upward graph when applied to plants and trees. Why can’t we appreciate the value of similar cycles and “seasons” in our busy professional lives?
In fact, nature literally organizes itself around cycles. Tides come in and out twice a day. The moon goes from new moon to full moon, waxing and waning in a monthly cycle just as the sun rises and sets daily. Plants go dormant before their season of growth, maturing over the summer and then going dormant again in the fall. These are all examples of the leaps and stalls that nature embeds within cycles of life on planet Earth.
Organizational change is never a straight path
Organizations are filled with humans that have a closer relationship to the dynamics of change found in nature than in machines. And yet our organizational mythology suggests that change has a beginning, middle, and end. If we aren’t following a linear, orderly process, then our change work must be a failure.
Nature sees things differently, and a lot less judgmentally. For example, sometimes organizational change that didn’t stick the first time will show up in a later iteration. Applying the lessons of nature would suggest that perhaps It wasn’t the right time for the organization to launch the initiative. Sometimes the change process might not accomplish its stated initial goal, but influence the ecosystem and create a stronger platform for further evolution of the organization. Only 4% of dandelions seeds take root and become plants, but the rest fall on fallow ground and are used over time to amend the soil so plants can eventually grow there. Nature thinks long-term where change is concerned, and we might benefit from the same perspective.
Change strategies, even ones that die, often influence the future of an organization. A change process that might fail at accomplishing a goal can still change the culture or mindset of the organization over time. The very way we design and implement change can increase trust and engagement or diminish it. When we mismanage a change process, the resulting distrust will continue to negatively affect future efforts until trust is rebuilt in the system.
Sometimes change efforts are designed in a way that diminishes the self-organizing capacity of the organization. An example of this in nature is the use of fertilizer to accelerate the growth of monocrops like corn or soybeans. Soil has a genetic memory of what grows best in that location, with the sunlight and rainfall natural to the area. Fertilizer destroys that genetic memory and requires the farmer to continue to use fertilizer to grow their crops. This cycle will continue until the farmer shifts the focus on restoring the soil. In our change efforts we can design processes that get the job done, but do so by destroying the active engagement of the people in the organization, just as fertilizer destroys the natural process of crops. The change is accomplished, but at a high cost and will only stick as long as there are people supervising the change and holding it in place.
Cycles create natural, more powerful rhythms
If we chose to use change in nature as our blueprint, we would see that change is supported by natural cycles and rhythms. We could design change initiatives to complement the dynamics of the system we seek to influence and embrace not only the planned goals, but the organic, positive impacts as well. This new, long term mindset will help our organizational change efforts sustain themselves and leave the system with more capacity to evolve and adapt. Just as it does in nature.
Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at www.kathleenallen.net