Watch out for the pendulum swing

Societal and organizational pendulum swings are a metaphor for major change or transformation in thinking and action. They are in and of themselves neither good nor bad, postive nor negative. They tend to reflect as well as point to major trends. We all know the obvious ones:

  • The swing from centralized to decentralized
  • The swing from insourceing to outsourcing and more recently to crowdsourcing
  • The swing from regulation to de-regulation
  • The swing from heirachial structures to flat organizational design
  • The swing from an industrial focus to knowledge or information focus and more recently the beginning of a swing to what is called the conceptual age (which is a focus on people, their skills, motivations, emotions, etc.)

Such shifts or swings are motivated by a complexity of factors and are meant, I believe, to offer a new emphasis on concepts and actions as opposed to totally replace the old with the new. The challenge is to find and maintain the balance by honouring and preserving the “old” while creating or building the “new.”

It seems that all too often our embrace of the new idea or way of doing business creates a bandwagon effect that results in an “over-trust” in a new direction. I have seen this when teaching students about leadership, for example. The excitement of a model that is new to the student frequently supplants his or her current view of leadership with the new model when the intent should be to reflect on the model and integrate it, where appropriate, with one’s current mindset.

Think about the swing from centralized services to decentralized. On the far left of the diagram above, I represent the centralized concept: decentralized is on the far right. These two extreme perspectives by nature exclude what may be relevant and appropriate from their opposites. In fact, often the two far poles on a pendulum swing exist in opposition to each other and can lead to rigid positions like “This way is the right way; the other way is wrong.”   Extreme perspectives tend to be closed to opposition or even critical inquiry. Instead of the model becoming a frame to consider, appreciate, and challenge, they become marching orders, intolerant of criticism, and often punitive to those who don’t simply align and obey.

The middle ground, the balanced perspective, represents a mindset that flexes back and forth within the context of the organization or group. For a service delivery approach, in some cases centralized services make sense; in others decentralized. This does not mean extreme perspectives are never valid; I am suggesting that more often than not we should value both in balance in order to craft our way of doing business or acting. Life is too complex and its pace too fast and eratic to value alignment so highly we ignore what is true about every model: they are flawed and incomplete and by nature products of bias.

We can see what happened in the United States with the deregulation of banks and how the full pendulum swing from regulation to de-regulation contributed to the financial miasma that still impacts that nation today.  Clearly more regulations are needed but to swing the pendulum from one pole to the other) is likely not the answer either.

In the non profit sector, we have seen the pendulum swing from process to outcomes, from operational boards to Carver boards and now the risk of swinging over to generative governance models as the answer to how non profits should be governed. In reality most of us know or at least sense that an effective board must balance its work to give due attention to operations, to strategy and policy, as well as make time to have generative discussions about issues or trends that should preface strategy building.

When faced with the realization that a current model is not working or when exposed to an attractive alternative approach, there must be some discipline about reviewing “what is” as well as “exploring what might be.”  Such discipline for an individual is hard enough; for an organization it is much more difficult. In fact, the level of difficulty is, I offer, a major reason why either groups spend forever admiring their problems or jump on a bandwagon and ride the wave of the latest theory or popular model.

In the United States, United Ways swung the pendulum from being a fundraising organizastion to that of being a community builder, so much so, United Way leaders stopped talking about fundraising in public speeches; I heard one leader say that United Way is no longer a fundraiser. No more public fundraising goals were shared like they once were in his city. Somehow that US-based United Way and others like it forgot that one fundamental requirement for community building is money. We can use community building efforts to leverage fundraising of course, but the pendulum swang too far for many of those United Ways.

We see the pendulum swing phenomenon taking place in terms of social media, social enterprise, shared space, social return on investment, and so on. Organizations launch Facebook pages but don’t really know why. Some are gravitating to social enterprise as the promised land for significant new resources when there is little evidence such efforts will produce a profit much less significant new resources. Shared space and services do make sense. They can create efficiencies and lead to better services, but we go too far if we believe all organizations should engage in activities. Sometimes they just don’t make sense, just like mergers are not a one size fits all solution. Social Return on Investment (SROI) is another potential pendulum swing. Is it a bad idea? No, not at all. But in the business of helping people, let’s be careful we don’t assume help in all its complexity can be captured in a set of financial numbers.

So, how might we foster the development of a balanced perspective?

There is no set formula for that either, but drawing on my experience with a good number of stellar organizations, I have observed the following cultural elements that seem to result in moving forward in a balanced way. These include in no particular order:

  • A visible commitment to dialogue at all levels in the organization during which ideas can be explored, even wild ones, and solution building is based on the convergence of experience, knowledge, and imagination.  Simple applications of models and focused energy on getting everyone to see things the same way can be risky business. We need boat rockers and resistance as part of our culture and our strategy development.
  • We need critical thinking in our organizations, which of course, helps ensure excellent dialogue. Critical thinkers can have passion but they tend to use reason moreso than emotion to guide their decision-making. Yes, they look for evidence but they are careful not to exclude knowledge and evidence because of personal or professional biases. They are concerned with finding the best explanation or solution, regardless of its fit within a model or “our way of doing things.”
  • Effective and innovative organizations are driven by principles that reflect who they are and wish to be and how they will work within and with others to continually improve and change to achieve mission and vision. They do so by remaining open to ideas and emerging issues and opportunities, especially those that challenge their current mindset. This calls upon everyone in the organization to ward off  black and white thinking or seeing the organization’s facts as the only facts.
  • Organizations with balanced perspectives make time for thinking, discussion, exploring, and pro-typing new ways of doing business. They are disciplined about reflection and seeking innovations, without falling into the trap of believing what they create or innovate is now the final answer.

Balanced perspectives are not passive. They do not represent a kind of stasis where nothing much happens or where risk is averted. People and organizations with a balanced perspective risk falling or failing. They do so because they know there is no one right model or answer for their organization and for the people they serve.

More later.

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