Broken Images … The Sequel

By | April 21, 2009


 “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Albert Einstein

“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
Winston Churchill

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Albert Einstein


The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”
The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”
And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,
A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

Wallace Stevens

People in the business of consulting organizations have many cute little sayings; one of which is “function determines form.” What this means is that you figure out what needs doing (function) and then you figure out how to do it (form). It’s one of those sayings that has a certain compelling rhetorical appeal but rarely makes it into practice. The problem with it is that it’s usually some pre-existing form that sets out to determine the new function and why so many organizations that set out to renew themselves, end up looking pretty much the way they did before they began. They may have developed a new rhetoric; a new vision and mission statement; perhaps even a new strategic plan, but these are often no more than exercises in word-crafting. The reason for this is that people in positions of organizational power (remember the beautiful killer purple loosestrife of January’s Random Riffs?) are generally unwilling or unable to come up with a function that will result in a form that doesn’t keep them in power doing pretty much the same things they’ve always been doing. Someone once said that if you put culture and strategy into a ring together, culture wins every time. They might just as easily have said if you put form and function into a ring together, form wins every time.

Getting form to adapt to function isn’t an easy one and I don’t have any neat answers. I do, however, have a sense of an answer … but you’re going to have to bear with me patiently. I’d like you to begin by listening to a couple of people talk about an essential but tricky balance that needs to be achieved.

 “Neither positivistic nor psychodynamic schools of thought allow for the fact that our psychological constitution permits both total tentativeness and total commitment. Such a paradox reminds us of the electron that is able to go in two opposite directions at the same time. Taken by itself tentativeness is disintegrative; commitment is integrative. Yet the blend seems to occur in personalities that we admire for their soundness and perspective. Whenever the two attitudes coexist in a life we find important desirable by-products from the fusion. One is a deep compassion for the human race. The other by-product is likewise graceful; it is the sense of humour. Humour requires the perspective of tentativeness, but also an underlying system of values that prevents laughter from souring into cynicism.”

Gordon Allport, “The Person in Psychology”

“Organizations continue to exist only if they maintain a balance between flexibility and stability, but this is difficult to do. Flexibility is required so that current practices can be modified in the interests of adapting to non-transient changes in the environment. The trouble with total flexibility is that the organization can’t over time retain a sense of identity and continuity. Chronic flexibility destroys identity. Stability provides an economical means to handle new contingencies, since there are regularities in the world that any organization can exploit if it has a memory and a capacity for repetition. However, chronic stability is dysfunctional because more economical ways of responding might never be discovered; this in turn would mean that new environmental features would never be noticed.”

Karl Weick, “The Social Psychology of Organizing”.

Tentativeness and commitment; flexibility and stability. Managing both simultaneously is a lot tougher than walking and chewing gum! I know one thing – if you have no tolerance for broken images and imperfection, you won’t pull it off. I’m reminded here, as well, of Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great”, describing Level 5 leaders as possessing a paradoxical blend of fierce will and personal humility. It resonates nicely with Allport and Weick.

I’m not against form. In fact, I’m all for it. But what’s needed is a special kind of form; one that, while recognizing the importance of commitment and stability, is, at the same time, enabling of tentativeness and flexibility. The great jazz bassist, Charles Mingus, put it well: “You can’t improvise on nothing; you gotta improvise on something.” Somewhat less tersely, the jazz vibraphonist, Gary Burton, puts it this way, “One of the paradoxes of improvisation is that it’s a mixture of two opposites – tremendous discipline and regimen balanced by spontaneity, listening, and playing in the moment.”

If you want to get a taste of what I’m talking about and an experience of what I think Wallace Stevens is getting at with that marvelously provocative playing “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves”, try this. (By the way, you won’t find the time for this, you have to make the time for it.)

In one of my earlier organizational incarnations, I would gather the people I worked with for a monthly after-hours conversational jam session. The minimalist structure (kind of like the three-chord twelve bar blues jazzers use to push the limits) for these sessions took the form of a simple question: “What do we know now that we didn’t know a month ago?” Although we’re fond of saying that experience is the best teacher, we so rarely stop to learn from it. This was an opportunity to do so and we, like jazzers, learned from each other. Sometimes people would simply share an experience that they’d not fully processed but which seemed to have the potential for learning and we’d do it together. It was OK to speak in incomplete sentences; OK to begin a thought that someone else would finish. And in the same way that jam sessions are fun for musicians, it became something fun for us.

 The question constituted a form that kept us focussed and liberated us at the same time. It was our blue guitar and there were enough times when we played upon it a tune that was beyond us, yet ourselves.


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