Well, not so much an exercise as an urgent task. The market has changed. A new model is called for.
Readers will know the drill. Twenty people, 3 facilitators, a blank and anonymous room, lots of flip charts, stacks of stickies, everyone’s name in plexiglass, all of us seated in a square.
In a hundred years historians and anthropologists are going to want to know what happened in these events. There will be no records to speak off. Flip charts or stickies do not make it into archives. The ideas will survive but only in the ways the corporation changes it’s structure and practice. (Good luck reverse engineering from here to the ideation session from which the changes came.) Here then is an observation or two.
There are a couple of intellectual patterns that got my attention.
1. furiously framing and reframing
The problem is that we can’t tell exactly what the problem is and we have still less idea what the solution is. So much discourse is devoted to saying "Ok, let’s see the issue is x" or "what if it’s y," or "look, I think the problem is Z." And once we fix on a rough notion of what the problem is, solutions begin to flourish still more generously. The selection process is unofficial, automatic, emergent. The better solutions stick around. In the blizzard of possibilities, these stick. People remember them, return to them, refer to them. But what is happening here is a really liquid kind of problem solving. We are are framing and reframing and reframing yet again…until the wisdom of this little crowd becomes apparent.
Good solutions get tagged, and there is an art to tagging. Vivid pictures and phrases get the job done. Bad ideas will live a little longer if well tagged. Good ideas have no hope of surviving to maturity and adoption unless (or until) they are well tagged. Some people are really good at tagging. Indeed, this is the job that some people end up performing in the group.
3. pattern migration
There are wonderful moments when someone will say, "look, here’s something we know about this context. I wonder if we could transfer this to another problem set." I am sorry this must be so vague but I am obliged to honor my confidentiality agreement. But this really is a revelational moment. And it works almost exactly the way metaphor does. We have migrated what we know about this domain to this domain. Friday, one of these came from a women who was not very much involved in the debate. Bang, suddenly the conversation was hers. The ratio of words spoken to ideas delivered in her case must have been something like 10 to 1. Most of us were working on 1000 to 1.
4. scaling up, scaling down
There is lots of intellectual scaling up, scaling down. At one moment, we were dealing with the biggest possible problem sets in the broadest possible ways. The next, we have zeroed down to a very particular problem. Sustaining control of the problem at all points on the scale is a special talent. Some people are good at one end. Others good at the others. But a surprising number of people were good at all levels and good at moving up and down the scale. I have to say some of these movements are breath taking. Literally, you think "whoa!" as you move.
5. messier models
I was interested to see a new impatience with the usual box and arrow models with which people identify units and relationships between them. We saw people insisting on messier models in order to honor some of the messiness in the world in the model. The bigger point to make here is that as the world gets messier, more multiple, more various and changeable, discourse about change is beginning to take on these structural properties. In a word, we are adapting.
6. acknowledging fear
For the first time, I saw people building models of process that acknowledge the emotional difficulties inherent in the change making process. Everyone always feels the pain of entertaining new ideas and having to give up old verities, but this used to be a very private condition. Now people are openly acknowledging it. And this is a good idea because there are moments when someone (perhaps ones own self) becomes obstructionist because suddenly their (your) nerve has snapped. Building emotional difficulty into the model because this sensation and the problem more manageable.
7. new language like "chunking"
For a few years now, people have been using the term "chunking." From the outside, this look like sloppy language for sloppy thought. And of course lots of people like to think that corporations are "stupid." The Left is especially guilty of this. But in point of fact the corporation is pretty smart not least because it is filled with smart people. And "chunking" is a good example.
When problem sets are really messing and heard to read, "chunking" is useful. It’s a way of saying let’s call this [thing] a something. Because we are chunking we are not obliged to say or to know what it means. We are just saying "there’s something here we need to look at." This is a kind of problem solving in a fog. It’s a kind of "edge finding" exercise. (From whom did I get this term?) We know have language for the first and vaguest act of problem identification.
People are now prepared to acknowledge that the corporation is no longer a free standing, discrete entity. It is customary to hear people dealing with the fact that the corporation has loose boundaries. This is because, in a Japanese manner, they are cooperating with competitors. It’s because they are "cocreating" with the consumer. This throws into question the very idea that the corporation is a corporation. After all, this term is a metaphor. It’s saying that this business enterprise is a body, separate and free standing. Now that porousness is the new order of the day a new term is called for. Suggestions? I still like calling these new units "drafty" or "cloudy" but I may be the only one who finds these terms appealing.
All of these new intellectual inclinations and practices suggest I think that the corporation is learning to live with dynamism by learning how to practice dynamism.
That image is the floor of an elevator of a hotel in Cambridge, MA. But it kind of reminded me of a starter’s flag, hence its metaphorical usefulness here.
I have learned a lot about the corporation from many people, including Tom Peters, Stuart Kauffman, Ed Batista, Tom Guerriello, Rick Sterling, all of whom are acknowledged here.