Change2010_06: Evolving patterns

Cum grano salis

In this seventh article and last article of this series (beside the bibliography), a reality check.

You can share ideas, dreams, or “what ifs”, but, in the end, experience is built by the interaction with reality- not by thinking about an alternative reality.

In this article I would like to share some practical experience on how to temper the fury of over-excited zealots of innovation-through-patterns.

I had to recover few times for partners and customers situations that had grown out of proportion for a simple issue: lack of communication, specifically an error on our side- the people working day after day with the customer tried to force through patterns that had been successful elsewhere, or let patterns coming from their personal contact with customers blind them to the business reality.

Introducing new or imported patterns is not just a “technical” activity: it is a change management activity with potential impacts way beyond the specific organizational area where each pattern is introduced.

And, as with any activity that could impact on the corporate culture, it should be prepared by an appropriate assessment not only of the current status, but also of the potential side-effects of the new pattern(s), and the identification of the key signs (a.k.a. Key Performance Indicators), that could act as a “light and bell buoy”, helping to understand in which of the alternative scenarios you are ending up.

So, how do you identify if a pattern is suitable to your organization or should be adapted?

Pattern compatibility

If you have a pattern that you want to introduce in a different environment, you or somebody who gave you the pattern went through at least three steps: living, observing/reporting, abstracting.

You experience something, see an emerging pattern, understand ex-post that there was, in effect, a pattern, and make mental or formal note of the new pattern- for future uses.

In my experience, most of the people involved in abstracting a pattern from repeated experience forget to note down also the context that generated the pattern- what concurred to make that (positive or negative) pattern possible.

A practical example: if you worked in a “flat” organization, where everybody is both an expert on her/his own activity and has a general understanding of everybody else’s activities, patterns created in that environment are based on a degree of flexibility that you cannot reproduce in a larger organization.

If you want: you cannot steer an aircraft carrier as if it were a pilot boat; incidentally- the reason of the seafaring references is because talking about this subject reminded me of a financial controller I worked with who talked about sailing instead of football- in Italy, in the 1980s, that was quite unusual: one of my first project where I saw the difference between importing patterns and importing patterns adapted to a specific organizational context.

Chances are that you are risking to pay lip service to the new patterns, and end up having a Potemkin village, presenting the new pattern- while everybody is working with the old ones, and then adding what is needed to produce what the new one would require: I saw this side-effects when, for example, some suppliers adopted ISO9000 without changing before their corporate culture.

Assuming that everything went well, the next crucial step is keeping the patterns relevant.

Patterns of evolution

In many organizations, evolving patterns, or monitoring the world to find new patterns that could be “transplanted” inside your organization, is often a “specialized” function, assigned to a central office.

Usually created so that they identify and formalize, and then “evangelize” everybody inside the organization.

Personally, whenever as a consultant I was asked to introduce, audit, improve on issues related to patterns (methodologies, processes, suggesting new organizational structures, partnerships, etc), I always repeated: whoever does something everyday has a visibility on reality that is not available in a centralized formalization office.

Therefore, evolving any kind of knowledge inside an organization, including patterns (and considering the introduction of new patterns) requires, in my experience, a communication channel.

A channel between those who are well versed on abstraction (the centralized office) and those who will actually work using the patterns- as both are needed to do a continuous reality check.

Often, once the knowledge is converted into an abstraction, it becomes almost impossible to trace back the source knowledge- i.e. only the “abstraction” office understands how to evolve the new patterns.

Another reason to avoid the “ivory tower” approach is to benefit from the expertise of everybody in your organization: probably members of your organization will be able to identify potential patterns- that the “abstraction” office could then assess for their potential use (but if you are already following “quality” or six-sigma initiatives you should already be doing this).

How do you avoid this potential risk? Have the staff from the “abstraction” office involved also in coaching on news patterns and collecting from within the organization “candidate patterns” proposed from within the organization (not necessarily derived only by experience within the organization).

A bit of experience-based advice: avoid introducing new patterns only because everybody else is introducing them.

E.g. like the example above- assuming that by copying work methods from tiny, flat companies, your organization will change by magic fiat; finding a pattern to introduce is just the beginning.

This closing article obviously had to present the flip side of patterns: but, as presented in the previous articles in this series, patterns can be useful to speed up the introduction of change within any organization.

Or to allow kickstarting a new organization, as you will be able to identify from prior patterns potential paths to success or failure, without the need to repeat the full experience.

As I wrote in the presentation to this series, these articles, to stay under the 1000 words limit, are merely scratching the surface: enjoy searching for patterns.

Importing patterns from reality inspired many inventions and scientific theories: why shouldn’t it be useful in developing or evolving organizations?

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