Later today, Derby County play away at Manchester United in the English Premier League. Currently, Derby are languishing in 20th place in the table (out of 20!), with Manchester United second. One possibility is that the match will run true to form and that United will win the game. At the same time, it is also possible that Derby will upset the odds and collect all three points. In the words of one of football's (soccer's) well-worn clichés: "On the day, it's just eleven men against eleven - anything can happen". As a Derby supporter, I can but hope!
Whilst it's true, of course, that anything can happen, current form suggests that Manchester United will win the match comfortably. Both outcomes are possible in the everyday heat of the local 'battle' but it is much more likely that United will come out on top - and probably by some margin. In football matches, as in life, established patterns tend to channel interactions and outcomes down well-trodden pathways. Despite this tendency, though, they also hold the capacity for an upset (i.e. something new) to occur. Which brings me on to the dynamics of continuity and change in organizations ...
In earlier posts (see Storytelling and Informal Coalitions, for example), I've argued that change takes place through everyday conversations and interactions. As these conversations change so does the organization.
The capacity exists for both continuity and change to occur in the moment of interaction
All conversations hold the capacity both for continuity to be maintained (analogous to a Manchester United victory today) and for change or novelty to emerge (as in a shock Derby win). However, as is the case in today's match, it is much more likely that continuity will be preserved than that novelty will occur. The course that a conversation takes is significantly affected by the taken-for-granted pattern of cultural assumptions 'within which' it takes place. And this means that, although the possibility is always present for thinking and action to break out of established patterns and take on new forms, the tendency is for local sensemaking and action-taking to continue along well-established paths.
Small incidents triggering large shifts
Novelty and change occur when a small shift in the conversational dynamic is magnified during the immediate conversation and others that flow from it. The trigger for this might be a chance remark, a mistake or misunderstanding, diverse perspectives or a sudden insight that results in the unexpected reframing of the situation or the challenging of previously unquestioned assumptions. In an organizational context, for example, it might be a manager's atypical response to an incident that breaks a pattern of mistrust and leads people to question their own, socially constructed aversion to management-initiated change.
So where do these patterns of assumptions come from?
Global (e.g. organization-wide) patterns emerge from everyday 'local' (i.e. one-to-one or small-group) conversations. The more that people (in interaction) make sense of events and take action in particular ways, the more likely they are to make similar sense and take similar actions in the future. That is, from an informal coalitions perspective, these patterns are not formed by managerial dictat or design but by the nature of the everyday sensemaking that has gone before.
As another analogy, consider what happens when rain falls on a natural landscape. It tends to flow into the channels that have been formed by past rainfall. The more that it is channelled in particular directions by the contours that have been 'etched' into the ground by past rainfall, the deeper these channels become and the more likely still that future rainfall will follow the same course. A similar dynamic occurs in organizational sensemaking. That is, in similar circumstances, there is a tendency for people to make sense of events and to act in ways that are similar to the ways that they have done so before. Nobody stands outside of this process, designing the patterns into which sensemaking flows. It is self-organizing.
This is one of the very few areas of organizational dynamics in which I take a different view from that put forward by Ralph Stacey. In Experiencing Emergence in Organizations, for example, he explains how global patterns emerge from local interaction according to his complex responsive process view of organization (p37):
"The essentially reflexive nature of human consciousness and self-consciousness means that we have the capacity to reflect imaginatively on these patterns [i.e. the narrative and propositional themes that organize the experience of being together], articulating both the habitual and just emerging transformations and in doing so either sustain the habitual or reinforce the transformation of habit.
In our reflection we generalize the tendencies we observe across many current situations, creating imaginative 'wholes' that have never existed and never will (Dewey, 1934). What we are doing in creating these imaginative 'wholes' is constructing in our interaction perceptions of unity in the patterning of our interactions. That imaginatively perceived unity is then a generalized tendency to act in similar situations in similar ways."
I have a number of issues with this explanation - as I have understood it. First, I have a problem with the notion that people are consciously reflecting on their in-the-moment interactions to create "imaginative 'wholes' ... [that represent] perceptions of unity in the patterning of [their] interactions". Secondly, even if they were doing so, I would argue that many of the "tendencies" to think and act in particular ways are imperceptible and not open to conscious reflection in the flow of real-time interaction. Thirdly, it appears to be implicit in the extended explanation of this process that novelty is just as likely to occur as is the maintenance of habitual patterns of action. And finally, this explanation seems to me to lose something of the self-organizing dynamic that is central both to an informal coalitions perspective and to Stacey's own view of organizations as complex responsive processes.
Change and continuity both occur through the dynamics of everyday conversation and interaction. Both outcomes are possible; but patterns of assumptions emerging from past sensemaking tend to channel ongoing sensemaking and action taking down familiar pathways. The bias, therefore, is in favour of continuity rather than change; familiarity rather than novelty. The challenge for leaders of change is to actively engage with this process in ways that help to shift the patterns in organizationally beneficial directions. Hopefully Derby can similarly 'shift the patterns' and upset the form book today!