Dosing Activation Energy

Ways of Unfreezing a System and Sparking Transformation

Lewin’s Formula of Change

A basic wisdom of coaching and organization development says: if you feel exhausted from constantly putting energy into a process, you are probably doing the system’s work. And if you are doing the system’s work, the system is not really changing, it simply lets itself be moved around by you. This principle has saved me many times from getting overinvolved when people or organisations are not really ready to change.

Yet, every wisdom seems to only hold part of the truth. Sometimes you need to poke and push a system a bit before it can actually start to change on its own. Organisations need to be “unstuck” (or in Kurt Lewin’s words “unfrozen”) to move out of their comfort zones. What keeps them in their comfort zone can be described as a physical process – water fills the valleys of a landscape to find its dynamic equilibrium – or as a psychological process – people form habits that become their second nature (sometimes, of course, these habits don’t really represent the most sensible way to perform a system’s function, but that’s another story). This conservative nature of systems – whether we frame it as homeostasis or path dependence –  is a powerful force in organization dynamics. If we want to overcome it, we need to bring new energy into the game. Lewin has coined the famous equation: for change to happen, the cost of change needs to be outweighed by the product of three factors: suffering (the experience of what’s wrong with the current situation), vision (a taste of what a better situation would look like) and the awareness of concrete steps how to get from one to the other. If one of these ingredients is missing, the status quo will outweigh the energy for change and the system will stay more or less as it is (note: the three factors are multiplied, they don’t work additively, i.e. it is not enough to have more of one and none of the other – all three need to be there). 

I find this equation quite helpful when assessing an organisation’s readiness for change: you can sense pretty quickly, which ingredient is there and which one is missing. If you have an abundance of suffering and no vision, people are miserable, hopeless, depressed – and they may go on complaining forever like a frog that is slowly boiled and won’t jump out of the water. In this case, you need to work on the positive images. Don’t start with another problem analysis, start with appreciative inquiry. Don’t let a complaint stand, ask for a constructive alternative: what do youneed and wish for? 

On the other end of things, if there is an abundance of vision without suffering, the energy is high and heady. People love to shoot ideas and make great plans but you can tell, some grounding is missing in the conversations. The talk stays conceptual and the plane never takes off. In this case you need to make people discover the pain – in some instances this means making them aware of their own protective postures, sometimes it is about uncovering hidden suffering within the system (usually somewhere in the field, not the boardroom), in yet other cases it is simply the awareness of opportunity costs (we are flying below our potential) or pending risks (we are heading straight into a wall) that needs to be surfaced. 

Finally, if there is pain and vision but the third ingredient – clarity on first steps – is missing, things may move ahead, but most likely the maps and strategies used resemble part of the old system with all its limitations, often leading right back into the problem. In this situation our job as organization developers is to offer new paths. 

All of these interventions are far from hands off. In some cases they need to be delivered with a firm, even authoritative stance. Who likes to think about visions when they are indulging in suffering? Who likes to look at problems while playing on the swigs of grand ideas? And finally, who likes to give up a good old habit? A benevolent push is what’s needed here. However, the robust initial stance has to switch, once the system is unstuck and a new order emerges on the path towards the focused vision. We cannot push forever, we need to step back and let change unfold. Otherwise, we will end up doing the system’s work.

Lighting a Match

A few weeks back I had a conversation with my colleague Rudi about our longstanding difference on intervention approaches. While I like to work with a light, facilitative touch and favor homeopathic interventions, Rudi goes all in, working the field of micropolitics like a skilled chiropractor. While I am sometimes overly careful and stop at thawing rather than full unfreezing, he may not stop until the soup has come to boil. Boiling systems do all kinds of funny things. In the turmoil of a hotpot, emergent order is pretty hard to detect. That’s why I am skeptical of the “all in” approach.  

The case we were discussing involved an organization with over 100 employees in a pretty techy field of work. The process Rudi was driving as lead of a four consultant team was super intense: almost daily facilitated working group meetings on various levels, continuous massaging to tame the anxious leadership, heavy internal marketing for participation of a skeptical employee base and constant recalibrating to keep the process on rails. The experience was a mix of pushing through mud and riding a rodeo. We were sweating a lot. In my eyes, we were doing the system’s work – bringing so much heat into the organisation seemed unsustainable to me and way beyond the point of unfreezing. In response, Rudi introduced the notion of exothermic reactions and compared the intense process interventions to the act of lighting a fire. 

I had to dig a bit in my 10th grade chemistry backlog to bring back the context: feeding energy into a system can activate a reaction though which the system either settles in at a higher level, as energy is absorbed (“endothermic reaction”) or at a lower level, as energy stored in the system is released (“exothermic reaction”). 


Melting and evaporation represent endothermic reactions: as frozen water absorbs the heat from the sun in spring, it changes its physical state from solid to fluid. The resulting water is warmer and thus has a higher energy level than the initial ice. The chemical process of splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen in order to produce hydrogen fuel is another such endothermic reaction. Inversely, burning and combustion are exothermic reactions: once a matter is exposed to a certain heat level, it ignites and gives off energy in the process. Both, endothermic and exothermic reactions require an initial activation energy – a push.

Projected onto the OD intervention arena, the endothermic approach is about unfreezing the system and thus allowing it a higher energy level to move into new states. In contrast, the exothermic approach is about igniting the system to initiate a reaction in which energy stored within is released as fuel for profound transformation.

In watching our OD process unfold, I am starting to believe that sparking exothermic reactions can indeed be an alternative to mere unfreezing. That said, I am also convinced that working with this approach requires attention to a couple of things: Firstly, we have to be sure that our tools are in order and fit the intervention arena. What if we keep striking a match with a worn head? Or if the sulfur scratcher is actually just sandpaper? Or – even worse – if we are trying to ignite wet wood? We may induce rubbing energy, but nothing will really take off from there. In that case we need to stop and either take a new match, look for another scratcher or try another approach altogether.

Secondly, if an exothermal reaction does take place, it can be explosive. Matches may be quite safe, fireworks, however, ought to only be ignited in the outdoors. Unless you really know what you are doing, and are clear, which kind of energy is stored in the system, you should not trigger it lightheartedly. Moreover, once an ignition has taken place, if you intend to have any part in facilitating the further path of development, you have to be ready to hold on tightly to manage the process and face the possibility of being thrown off in the resulting Rodeo. 

I need to think further about the question, if there is an ideal approach for different initial states and trajectories of organisations. Is there a diagnostic case indication for either the endothermic or the exothermic approach or is it just a matter of style preference by change agents and facilitators? Most likely, as usual, it is both. And in both cases the key question is: When do we stop pushing? At which point is the activation energy induced sufficient for the intended reaction to take place? When can we stop blowing as the fire is burning by itself? Blowing too hard for too long is one side of the risk: You substitute the systems work, you sweat and you may find out too late that you are trying to ignite wet wood. Blowing too little can be even worse: Fires die down. In cold air, water freezes over again. A stone that is not pushed far enough, will roll back down the mountain and we have to start over like Sisyphus. We need to recognize the reaction point. Our role at this point is to stay at the edge. To let go of pushing as much as possible in order to give the process space to emerge and unfold while being ready to step in in case it starts to die down or roll back. At this point the key issue is not content but dynamics.

Protective Postures

Organization Development Lessons from Physical Therapy

I remember the spring of 2017 as one of the physically most uncomfortable times of my adult life. While exercising in an outdoor gym in cold weather (not something I tend to have a habit of doing) my neck got stretched the wrong way and a disk slipped. I held out with scarfs and painkillers for a couple of months but as the pain seemed to become my daily companion, I eventually went on to see an orthopaedist. Looking at my MRI, the guy had not much more to say than „This is bad – we cannot fix it, but I can give you shots to take care of the pain“. I didn’t take the shots but instead asked him for a prescription for physical therapy. It landed me with an Osteopath, who was much less interested in the MRI than a bunch of other things: My posture, my digestion, my walking habits. His take on things was that most of my pain was muscular, derived from tensions and pulls my body produced to avoid dealing with whatever was wrong with my neck. Over time, these tensions had become chronic. His introduction to my treatment was blunt: “Mr. Knoth – you will not want to marry me after this. And it will not be better tomorrow, in fact it will probably be worse. But we have to make it worse in order for your body to heal itself”. The idea: A chronic patch does not heal. A problem must be acute for the body to take care of it in a productive way. 

It made sense to me. I consented to the proposed treatment and he went to business making my pain acute. The way he tortured trigger points in my neck and shoulders made me wonder about his Hippocratic Oath’s compatibility with the Geneva Convention. It was agony. And he was right, the day after and the day after that, things felt worse than before. Then, another day passed and the pain felt different – something transformed and slowly found a new order. We had 10 sessions in total. After the 8th, I was actually looking forward to the treatment and was enjoying the chats with my therapist about his approach and all the things there were to learn from it for my field of work. A few weeks after the last session, I did not feel any more pain in my neck. My body had found a solution. And it needed that push, the acuteness to stop working around the injury and go head on with the problem. Obviously, I still need to be mindful how I move and still need to practice and maintain a healthy muscle base on my back. But I am glad I didn’t stick with the pain shots.

So what is there to take away from this for the field of self-organisation development? 

Every system has work-arounds, patches and tensions that have become chronic. The German word “Schonhaltung” signifies a physical posture that is taken on in order to protect an injured or strained part of the body. Such a protective posture starts as a solution to avoid further pain and strain. In becoming chronic, the compensating habit may well end up as the primary problem – sometimes even more harmful than the initial injury. 

I have seen many teams with a protective posture relating to power. Any time the uncomfortable sides of power show up in daily business (as they do), these teams declare individual autonomy the highest value in order to neutralize power. Often this results in a power vacuum with problematic knock on effects. Other teams shelter themselves from topics like money, intimacy, spirituality or political convictions by tacitly declaring them taboo. Usually, there is something behind this. An injury, a micro trauma, a painful episode, maybe even a dramatic conflict in the history of the organisation that has settled in on a bearable workaround level to avoid raw pain. Like the defensive routines described by Chris Argyris, these workarounds hinder us from learning, growing and moving freely.

Chronic conflict, like chronic pain, will not heal by itself. In fact, if you want to heal a conflict that has settled in, you may have to reactivate it by making it acute. In effect, if there are protective postures lingering, instead of diffusing tensions, we need to catalyse conflict in order for the system to be able to work itself out.

If we accept that we need to address protective postures head on before moving deeper into self organisation, the question is: how do we do it without getting stuck?

For most people, going back into an old conflict is mad. It seems like a step back, a reopening of books that were tediously closed and safely sowed away. How safe or fragile it actually is sometimes only becomes obvious when triggers are being pushed. It can be difficult and risky to go on this journey without external support. As working to relieve muscular tensions may call for a physiotherapist, conflict work calls for an experienced facilitator. The most basic ingredient of conflict transformation is dialogue: honest sharing and rigorous listening. There are many formats this can be practiced in – Restorative Circles as presented by Dominic Barter, Deep Democracy as introduced by Arnold & Amy Mindell, and of course the needs based framing of Nonviolent Communication by Marshal B. Rosenberg, to name a few. Different methods have different charms and it will take another book – most likely not written by me – to honour them all. 

Beneath any methodology though, the critical ingredient of conflict work is as simple as challenging: to overcome the fear of conflict and face it as an opportunity to start losing our protective postures. Once the ground becomes soft again, the system may gracefully adapt and recreate itself with a free flow of energy – the quality of a healthy state of self organisation.

Guerilla Gardening Approach

Changing Organisational Culture from the Periphery

Organisational Culture is a strange creature. Some people say you cannot change it, you just have to deal with it like the climate zone you live in. Others make the case for “Cultural Engineering” – the controlled development of mindsets, belief systems and ways of relating. Others again advocate for heroic acts of “Transformative Change”: Walk in through the front door, proclaim a new era, introduce a new generative image and watch the old times crumble while you build a new empire on a new narrative. Simple as that? Well, our history books make it look simple because in 4000 years of charted leadership practice we do find hundreds of instances of such transformative change that make an impressive case. What we don’t find are the millions of instances of social change that entered through the back door. If we use the main entrance to proclaim cultural change, we have to make it quite a robust entry. The problem with robust entries is, they come at the price of sensing. There must be a better way. 

The first time I heard the Guerilla Gardening metaphor used in the context of organization development was in 2011 at the “oe tag”, an annual OD practitioners’ conference SOCIUS hosts in Berlin. The conference focused on issues of organizational culture and two colleagues, Anne Kerwani and Kerstin Giebel, offered a workshop proposing a subversive approach to cultural development.  Rather than changing culture from the top with a great proclamation, their key idea was to look for the peripheral spaces in the organisation and to hatch practical examples of the desired future. I have played and worked with this idea in the last years, got excited and frustrated, and came to be a strong believer in the Guerilla Gardening approach.

Let’s start with the origins of subversive urban development. Here is a step by step guide to Guerilla Gardening: 

  1. Find an uncared-for peripheral piece of land, a wall, a tree – best in your own neighbourhood.
  2. Decide what you want to plant and check if your choice makes sense. Tough plants and fast growing flowers are a good start.
  3. It’s more fun together – find partners. Talk to friends and neighbors.
  4. Build your garden. Possibly you need to bring some fertile soil and definitely water the plants after planting.
  5. It may be wise to protect your garden from the challenges of city life, possibly with an improvised little fence against dogs and feet.
  6. Care for your garden with love! Go regularly and water it.
  7. If things go differently than planned, don’t lose faith! Talk to residents! Most of them will like your action and at least give you moral support. Some may even join you!


I don’t think I even need to translate this little instruction into OD language as it is so obvious. 

So what happens then? How does the Guerilla Garden transform the system? There are a number of versions of this process: 

Keimform – Lessons from Neo-Marxism

Neo-Marxist Theory has coined the term “Keimform” (seed-form) as a social practice that works within the functional logic or “grammar” of the dominant system, but undermines its social logic or value base. Peer Commons and Share Economies are such examples: they run smoothly within the market logic of supply and demand but they undermine the idea of private ownership of means of production (well, at least they should). If under the condition of a general crisis of the dominant system they come out of their niche, they have the potential to turn into dominant practice – the story is changed. In organisational context, agile models can be described as such “Trojan Horses” as they function under the premise of lean and efficient management while at the same time introducing measures of self-organisation and autonomy (of course, this sword has two edges: it is equally possible that Agile is imported with the motive to strengthen self-management while actually effecting a push towards new performance pressure). 

Niche-Regime Interaction – Lessons from Transition Management 

Another way to conceptualise the broader impact of local experiments is the Niche-Regime Interaction proposed in Transition Management, a conceptual framework that was developed to describe the transition towards Sustainability widely coined “the great transformation”. The transition management model focuses on three interacting system levels: 

  • the Landscape Level (Macro: broader trends of society and the relevant system environment), 
  • the Regime Level (Meso: dominant structures, cultures and established practices of the system) and 
  • the Niches Level (Mico: experiments and innovative alternative practices within the system underground). 
mage: J. Broerse, VU University Amsterdam (

Transition Management assumes that Regimes act with an evolutionary logic, filtering out unsuccessful experiments while gradually selecting and incorporating useful innovations into their existing set of practices. Niches are safe environments in which such innovations can grow, sheltered from the selection process. Pressure from the landscape is the key factor defining how “receptive” (or vulnerable) the regime is to niche innovations (i.e. will the innovation add to, fix, tickle or disrupt the regime?). Moments of high receptiveness are windows of opportunity, in which radical innovations can become drivers of change. When accumulated to a critical mass and aligned across different subsystems, they can transform or even replace the regime (F.W. Geels, J. Schot / Research Policy 36 (2007) 399–417).

The Guerilla Gardening approach can be analysed though the lens of this model as a niche-regime interaction. To be an effective pathway of change, three conditions need to apply: 

  • The local experiment needs to be sheltered long enough from performance and control pressure to become a coherent new model practice with a “tried and tested” feel.
  • The moment of pitching the new practice as a model solution needs to coincide with a window of opportunity (i.e. an established routine doesn’t deliver answers to a new challenge or external pressure)
  • The new practice needs to be integrated and accumulated with other innovative practices in order to effect a critical impulse in transforming (at least a part of) the system. 

Two Loops – Lessons from Systems Theory

A system change map that fits with the guerrilla gardening idea is Margaret Wheatley’s Two Loop Model developed in the Berkana Institute. The model describes the dynamics and roles in a transition from one system (in Transition Management terms: one “regime”) to another. Wheatley proposes that all systems go through a rise, peak and a decline phase – in larger societal systems this may happen over the course of 250 years, in organisational settings eras marked by a specific paradigm may last just a few years. A system at the top of its lifecycle is maintained by “Stewards”. Underneath the peak (in transition management terms: within the “Niches”), pioneers are stepping out and innovations are born. As these islands get connected and strengthened they may become the seeds of an alternative system. Networking and nourishing roles are relevant in this process. It may coincide with the decline of the old system (as seen in the degeneration of the Roman Empire: not always a pretty sight). If we don’t want the old system to simply collapse and vanish, hospicing and composting roles are needed to harvest. For the transfer of old to new regimes, there needs to be an illuminating role to light the landing grounds of the new system and a transitioning role to guide the move.

Image: Berkana Institute

In organisations we witness the two loops of transition in times of environmental disruption but also in the crises going along with developmental phase changes. For example, in the transition from the Pioneer to the Collective Phase, the collective impulse forms as a new (sometimes rebellious, sometimes reformist) subculture while the established leadership model may still be strong and in place. The progressive decline of the old and the strengthening of the new are intertwined processes feeding off each other. At some point, when the new model is strong and coherent enough to be trusted, the system is ready to transition.

Case Window 1

The Guerilla Gardening Approach takes patience. When I first applied it, I was so taken by the idea that I expected magic. We introduced the concept to our client, an educational facility with 50 staff suffering from a corporate culture issue around trust and feedback on all levels. The idea was taken – the process of discovering dysfunctional patterns and potential building blocks of a positive future took off with good momentum, then when it got to developing the guerilla gardening initiatives, the process got a little stuck. People were disappointed with the scale of things: a staff lunch, a conflict resolution rep with no formal mandate, a feedback questionnaire to tackle quality gaps – these ideas seemed petty, some of the plants dried up, some were trampled on; and yet, some survived. It was not until much later that we realized how the process had made us all understand the patterns, the difficulties and the visions in the organization much better. A second loop produced richer results. In the third year the organization formulated a new value statement that was not about displaying politically correct buzz words but outlined inherent struggles the team and leadership pledged to work on in a collaborative manner. The culture had changed – not by central proclamation, but by little harmless experiments at its periphery.

Case Window 2

I am sitting in Brighton after a workshop with The Dragonfly, a fluid organisation facilitating social and self-development through creative arts. The tough nut to crack here is the role of the founder who – despite all efforts to create a collective culture – continues to be the heart of things. As usual, the reasons why it is so difficult to transition is not just his change of roles but equally the mixed emotions going along with the challenge of stepping up as a team. Time and again, the interlocking dynamics play out: as long as the leader is leading, the collective has no real need or chance to prove itself. As long as the team is not proven, the leader will not relax into letting go. Everyone sees this and understands this dilemma. And still, there is no easy way to break out of it. This could go on for a long time…

My suggestion here is a guerrilla gardening project: jointly identify and create islands of shared responsibility in peripheral spaces. Play around, learn, connect them and nurture them. When the time has come: illuminate them and facilitate the transition to the collective mode. This transition will require a powerful ritual and a sensitive hospicing, including honouring and acknowledgement of the roles that are ending. It is not a reform project. No one is stepping into anyone else’s shoes. It is a transformation to a new organisation with a new story and new roles.  

Evolutionary Strategy

From Predict & Control to Sense & Respond

Everything will unfold with more grace if we stop trying to control and instead choose to simply sense and respond. (Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organisations)


Strategy Work needs to strike a delicate balance: It needs to navigate between the dangers of merely drifting with the environment and of overplanning in a delusion of control. The concept of “Sense and Respond”, last re-introduced to the Organisation Development discourse by Frederic Laloux, describes a mode of development between the two. It is neither fully comprehensive nor free of contradictions but it sure has the ring of a timely title for a new era.

Peripheral Vision 

In the Sense & Respond Mode we are seeking resonance to internal and external dynamics that are just being born. We are grasping a future, which exists only as a seed or fragile sprout in the here and now. This kind of sensing into the world is all but trivial: we tend to deselect anything that is new and unfitting. Alternatively, we interpret it though the filters of our perception to conform to our mental models. When I read the paper, chances are that I focus on and remember those things that fit my world view. Whatever is unfitting will evade my attention and get drowned out. In strategic processes “Weak Signals” that flicker as messengers of big developments in the noise of the world, equally fall prey to these filters of perception. We have to actively seek them out – particularly at the edges of our field of vision. 

We can support this search by cultivating our networks as dispersed sensing surfaces – a strengthening of the organisation’s “peripheral vision”. In order to do a good job at this, our network needs to be informed what kind of signals we are interested in. Cognitive filters can be countered by systematic contrasting of perspectives from different people. Another option is to meet the signals with open intuition – as Otto Scharmer describes in his Presencing approach.  

The Sensing does not only relate to signals from the outside world but equally to the internal environment, to the awareness for impulses and developments within the organisation.  Where are new ideas and directions of development coming about? Where are meaningful insights and discoveries being made? What are potentials for focussing attention (oh most precious resource of our time)? The ability to sense and respond to these dynamics requires a certain amount of “Jazz competence”. Listening, comping (the musical short for respectful harmonic accompaniment of a soloist), and setting impulses – all make for a fruitful emergent development and are far from given. Laloux’s concept of the evolutionary purpose describes how on the grounds of such mindful interaction the Bigger Picture of the strategic lines emerges in a collaborative process. Structurally it requires the permission, for people in any position to take strategic decisions on the ground. Planning and implementation are not distinct processes here, but interwoven. Sensemaking happens in motion.  

Just as with the Open Space approach I am wondering: is that still strategic? And if not, is that bad? Hasn’t the discovery of mindfulness opened a post-strategic era that is quite all right to live in? 

When an organisation asks me to consult them in a strategy process, my first question back to them is, why they believe they need a strategy in the first place. Often this question effects a mix of a raised eyebrow and a shrugged shoulder. You simply need a strategy, period. Oh yeah? If strategy is indeed only a “pattern in the stream of decisions”, there is no need to pre-conceptualize anything – it will come about by itself. The eyebrow stays raised and I feel that this explanation does not satisfy me either. I don’t just want to discover the world and drift with it – I want to shape it. The bigger picture needs a canvas. So, some ingredient is still missing. Could we go a bit evolutionary and a bit classic? What may minimal navigation and compass functions look like in a Sense & Respond mode? 

Navigation by Probing 

Let us consider the context. Contexts can espouse varying degrees of perceivable order, all of which require different modes of navigation. A helpful map in this respect is the Cynefin Framework, which describes four kinds of order in systems: simple systems (linear logic, example: a toaster), complicated systems (multi-dimensional order, example: a computer), complex systems (dynamic, multi-layered orders, example: a forest) and chaotic systems (non-decodable orders that don’t allow for predictions, example… uh, a birthday party with 9 year old boys). 

Source: Snowden & Boone, Harvard Business Review, Nov 2007

While complex environments currently seem to be the biggest fascination, a constant conjuring of the VUCA world will not help the fact that life and inparticular social systems have always been dynamic and complex. The ingredients volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity make for a fine description of the world as it is, with or without its ongoing condensation and acceleration. They mark the difference between the (simplified static) map and the (complex dynamic) terrain. In this respect we are rather dealing with the end of a long-lasting delusion of control than with a fundamentally new environment.

The Cynefin Framework is a useful tool to target your strategic approach. As Snowden & Boone point out, complex environments require a strategy approach that replaces the classic analytical „Sense-Analyse-Respond“ sequence with an experimental mode of feeling your way forward (“Probe-Sense-Respond“). In chaotic contexts robust action with continuous observation of feedback loops is in place („Act-Sense-Respond“). This fits with the insight, that complex environments require an equally complex internal structuring but at the same time they require very simple action programmes. 

I read this, I am delighted and wonder what it means. What exactly are we doing at our next strategy retreat? And will there be a plan in the end or not? 

The Art of Three Quarter Openness

To move forward here, it is worth taking a look at strategy models that combine great openness with minimal strategic anchoring. They are not abundant but up and coming (a not so weak signal). 

An interesting approach in this respect is the Opportunity Driven Development model, inspired by Peter Skat-Rördam. It focuses on the question, which developments need to happen so that the organisation can identify and grasp opportunities within its environment related to a specific strategic intent. The grand lines of development therefore are not about the world out there but about internal development of the organisation. Strategy work thus becomes Organisation Development Work, effecting a constant improvement of the functions of Sensing and Responding. 

The Opportunity Driven Strategy Model

Strategy work has long been split between the approaches of market or resource orientation: Do we want to tune in to the dynamics of the field, find gaps and beat the competition or do we want to focus on our strengths and use our core competences to create a unique offer?

Both approaches are promising and useful in complex environments: stay alert to what’s happening out there! And: concentrate on what you do best! The opportunity driven development approach opens the “Either-Or” up to encompass both.

The roof of the model is built by the Strategic Intent, a very down to earth version of the Mission statement answering to the question “How do we want to change our world in the intermediate future?”. The Strategic Intent functions as a compass.

The dynamic underground of the Model is made up of Opportunities – events that are sure to come but hard to predict: partnership offers, funding lines, turns in a discourse that support political lines of argument. 

The connection between the strategic intent and the opportunities are organizational challenges: intermediate “Construction Sites” within the organization that tackle development needs in order capture opportunities more successfully and sustainably. The construction sites can relate to various aspects: building speedy decision routines or effective resource mobilization, designing contact networks, building topical competences or establishing new impact models. A manageable number of development fields (3-5) are spelled out in annual planning routines and regularly evaluated for progress. 

When I recently presented this model to an international NGO, the director was visibly relieved, saying: “great, we have been working like this all along and we always thought it was kind of unprofessional. Now the child has a name!”. This reaction is not unusual and at least half of the relief goes out to justifying the Ad-Hoc-ism. Many organisations work on a dual operating system: Formally, a spotless strategic plan with long-term objectives, routemaps and milestones is worked out. Factually, this plan disappears in the drawers after a short time and makes way for an opportunity driven practice that could be coined “intuitively agile”. 

Strategic continuity can be at risk here as the connection between vision and pragmatic daily operations is quickly getting out of sight. Opportunity orientation is especially risky for less institutionalised actors as they are in danger of becoming a ball in the waves of environmental dynamics (“mission drift” is the organizational version of identity diffusion). Agility needs a strong frame.

The opportunity driven model does not dissolve this risk but offers stabilisation in form of the strategic intent and the mediating layer of construction sites. We can neither predict nor control opportunities, they open and close up like windows in the fog. Nevertheless, we can get better at recognizing and taking specific chances. We don’t have a map of the terrain ahead, but we can equip our ship to use currents and winds to get to the shores we are heading for. The focus of this approach is both, internal and external.

Another Three Quarters Open approach is the Guided Evolution Strategy Model proposed by Lechner & Bär. In a continuous experimentation mode, strategic initiatives are launched and selectively amplified or damped. Development impulses are guided through three distinct phases: „Variation“ (generating new ideas), „Selection“ (filtering out promising ideas) and „Retention“ (anchoring successful approaches by resource allocation or dampening of non successful approaches). As in Laloux’s model of Evolutionary Purpose, impulses can originate anywhere in the organisation. Selection and steering however are classically designed as a strategic management function. 

The question remains which structural preconditions Evolutionary Straetgy effects in organisations? What exactly are those dynamic capabilities that allow an organisation, to change its strategic answers, maybe even its resource base and its business model during operation? Three things seem important: 

  • Firstly, a high degree of real time communication is required, direct interaction with short reaction- and feedback times (this does not always have to be a face to face meeting, it can be mediated intelligently). Jazz-improvisation without immediacy does not really work. 
  • Secondly, evolutionary strategies require organisational cultures that cherish experimentation (including failures). Full hearted action must be treated as equally valuable as sensitive deliberation. Space for playful freedom, openness to failure, fluid changes of leadership and followership – that too is an art. 
  • Thirdly, we need structures that can be reconfigured swiftly. Thanks to the network and agility discourse we do have a number of promising models at hand for this: reaching from elastic frames (“Semi Structures”), Dynamic Roleboards, up to modular Organisations following the Lego Modell.

And more buzz words… as far as I can see, now the real work starts. It is quite possible that there are no ready-made answers and models but that the suitable strategic approach needs to be developed for each organisation individually. As it seems to me: the biggest challenge of the Sense and Respond Mode is neither process related nor structural. It has to do with a concept developmental psychologists call “Urvertrauen”, a basic deep seated trust, both, in the world and ourselves. 

Preliminary Order

The Sweet Perils of Agile Design

Continuous Construction

I am sitting on my porch in our cooperative micro-village, an hour north of Berlin on the Oder river, trying to keep the July morning sun out of my computer screen and the bugs out of my coffee. The sprouting weeds in the garden remind me of how quickly emergence can get messy. The peach trees, drastically trimmed in the fall and now back with focused strength, remind me, how cutting back can facilitate growth within a system. The bugs continue to annoy me. When I turn to the left I look onto my neighbor Jörg’s place. It looks different today, something has changed in the layout of the terraces, somehow the wooden constructions that structure life in the guest house he and his wife run within these old stone stable walls have been reconfigured. I can’t quite make out what it is, and I have stopped to keep track. Jörg is the one who made me think of the term “Preliminary Order”. His style of building is textbook agile. Where others ponder and plan for months until they finally find a design that seems perfect, he builds quickly and rebuilds even quicker. And where others again do this by continuously muddling though in provisional arrangements, every single interim solution in Jörg’s construction process is so close to refined, it could be final. Jörg is, what we may call a proud subject of Agility. 

I am not a builder. I can renovate and fix things if they are broken, but I would not know where to start with a more complex construction. I can see a bunch of interesting parallels to organization development though. Interior architecture is one of the many instructive metaphors for organization design. You design a sensible layout of spaces and, if you like it or not, the users will appropriate that space. If you don’t build a kitchen on the second floor, soon you will find a water-cooker in the upstairs living room. If there is no accessible door to the back yard, a window will soon become a surrogate entry and exit point – with the soiled carpet below that window illustrating the suboptimal nature of this solution. Messy rooms say just as much about their inhabitants as they do about the functionality of the shelving. Informal structures (in other words: organizational behavior) compensate for flaws in formal ones. Obviously they also need to be compatible, or at least communicate on some level to form a healthy whole. If this communication is not played out as a struggle but as a feedback dialogue, in which the formal structures are continuously adapted, we are closing in on agile design and preliminary order.

 Agile Design is rapidly gaining attention, both, in the field of project and process development. The basic idea of the agile approach is to apply iterative mini-cycles of design, implementation and evaluation rather than walking through a „waterfall“ sequence of the respective stages as in traditional planning process. 

What does it take?

Here are some ingredients of the Preliminary Order approach for Organisation Development

  • 80:20 Mindset: According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the deliverable of a task tends to be produced with 20% of the effort. It is the final polish that usually takes up the bulk of energy. Forget the final polish and invest that energy in further design cycles. Most of all, this takes a mindset that accepts near-perfect solutions.
  • Structural Hypothesis: Treat every solution as a hypothesis to test. Don’t get attached to your solutions and make sure the users don’t get overly attached to them either. Keep the ground soft. As my change management professor Charles Geany liked to note: Change catches up with change.
  • Anchor Platforms: When reconfiguring, don’t throw all the balls in the air at the same time. Continuous improvement works best if you can work from stable platforms. Constant change and improvement can be exciting, but it can also be stressful for people who like routines. Make sure to move back into the comfort zone every now and then to be able to integrate the stretch of development.
  • Keep Learning: Continuously collect feedback while the system is running. Tune in to user behavior as it compliments or compensates the formal structures. Are people using the door or the window? What are the deviances between the formal and the informal reality?
  • Agile Materials: Use materials that are of good quality but simple, flexible and not overly expensive. Build in a way that you can recycle these materials. Always have a stack of the core materials around. I am still thinking about what that could mean for organization development…

So, how does it work in practice?

In late 2015 we were hired to facilitate a development process within the German General Secretariat of one of the grand old welfare associations. A central division of the Secretariat was to be restructured from five units grouped around various target groups (children & youth, elderly, disabled etc) to three teams clustered around specific functions (finance, project & program management and research & innovation). While the headlines for the three new teams were set at the top management level, the functions, internal structure and interfaces were to be developed. The task seemed dubious at first: initiate a participative process to make sense of a solution that has already been fixed (“Here’s the answer, go and find the question”). But something told us, there were many more open ends in this equation than met the eye – and obviously the insights of the team members were vital to make them meet up in a sensible way. 

Consequently, we framed the new unit headlines as inspirational markers of the playing field.  As there was no experience in the organization with functional clusters we decided that a Preliminary Order approach would be suitable – start with a sensible draft solution, then continuously monitor and refine the system along the way. Other than in most our OD work, we accepted the time pressure and let it work for us to aid the early release of a structural design – knowing that the result was far from perfect. We deliberately left some parts of the structures open for later design cycles. Not surprisingly, problems showed up quickly and dissatisfaction stirred. 

We advocated to go through another complete development cycle. Our most noble task along that route was to help the management team feel ok with what at first seemed like failure to them. The second cycle started with observing the evolving workflow patterns and monitoring bugs and grey areas within the new system. These challenges were mapped and addressed in the redesign. Nothing was taken for granted and still, not everything was revised. Three months later, after another phase of “trying on” the new system, we added a third design cycle to refine the system even further. New needs had surfaced, fixed had uncovered new problems, and again Charles Geany rang in my ears: Change catches up with change. The result was a system that was pretty close to perfect – no one involved would have been able to design it from the outset. 

To be honest, the last paragraph is fiction -it’s how I would have liked to see it happen. In reality our process didn’t quite play out the agile way: We soon realized how hard it was to sell the Preliminary Order approach to our client. They did not want to experiment with preliminary solutions. The Top Management wanted things to be well-defined quickly and return to stable routines as soon as possible. Staff were equally unenthused: The prospect of throwing the cards up in the air by changing their working routines along with their team and office constellations every few months, seemed less than desirable to most. If Jörg is a proud subject of Agility, these guys were about to become disturbed objects of Agility. It wasn’t going to happen. So we abandoned the Agile leitmotiv. The bugs were patched, the dissatisfaction was eased and the boat went on and keeps on going with an ok but far from perfect design.

In the aftermath I wonder how we could have played it differently…. 

Of course, there is a price tag

Agility adds stress. In 1998 Richard Sennet wrote: „Flexibility in the working environment has made it difficult to the individual to make long term commitments and to shape a ‚narrative‘ or ‚history‘ for its future. Disorientation andfragmentation of coherent objectives  for the individual is the consequence“      

Since the publishing of his book, the number of sick leaves due to psychological illnesses in western organisations has tripled. The highest attributions are fast pace coupled with high workloads and multitasking. Reorganisations make for …

Sennett refers to an interesting definition of flexibilty as the quality a tree has, bending in the wind but also bending back to its normal form when the wind has subsided. This raises the question if there are limits to bendig back, if the . While the counterargument is equally valid (humans are genetically programed to live nomadic. Change is inherent in human culture and adaptation to changing environmental conditions is our strongest trait).

Agility is not to be confused with improvisation. Actually, agile development may be much farther from improvisation than from classic planning approaches. As a violinist disenchanted with the rigid frameworks of classical music I spent a good part of my musical life on Jam Sessions and Jazz Improvisation. In improvisation, design and implementation happen simultaneously. Inspiration, sensing, and (re)acting are intertwined in a moment of open awareness and communication. The nature of this communication is emergent. It cannot be predicted solely from looking what the players bring to the table. The groove happens or doesn’t happen. When it happens, it is a collective innovation that feels magic.

While agility does not presuppose any particular position on the continuum of design and emergence, agile development is quite a controlled affair. It certainly is about finding a groove in the communication between internal and external dynamics, but it lacks the curiosity for what Otto Scharmer calls the “Blank Canvas”. Agile Development has a plan, even if this plan is played out incrementally – it incorporates reflection, but this reflection has a clear purpose of defining the next step, the better feature, the revised order. Sometimes I wonder how compatible Agility really is with a commitment to emergent orders.

The concept of “Organic Agile” promises some answers here.