Managing Proactive Change Inside Your Company — Sophistication vs. Evolution


Torero, Granada, Spain, 2009

Personal change is hard, and organizational change can be even tougher.  When it’s hundreds of people (or thousands), getting everyone on board involves more than just rearranging the deck chairs in the executive suite — not that rearranging said deck chairs is necessarily a bad idea.  It likely won’t do enough — and that’s the problem.

How can we use the concepts of empathetic connection to understand a change process before crisis?  It is helpful to lay out a few guiding principles.  Here are two:

  1.  Changing the social structure information channels from simplex (one way) to duplex (two way) will create reorganization of that social structure over time.  There will be different kinds of emergent behavior that will arise when this happens.  This is what I call organizational Evolution.
  2. Creating rules that govern how information channels can be used inside an organization will not necessarily change the social structure, nor particularly create emergent change.  But it can be used to increase fidelity inside those channels, and the sophistication of behavior of people inside the organization.  This is what I call an increase in organizational Sophistication.

These two guiding principles map well to the Spiral.  Bottom line?  Change is either up or out.  Up is really the same as Spiral evolution or progression — creating an organization where more and diverse types of relationships are a natural outgrowth of the increased emphasis on empathetic connection and information exchange inside your organization.

What about ‘out’?  I’ve got a fancy name for this — I call this ‘Horizontal v-Meme Broadening.’  What that means is that you maintain your core social structure, but add various sidebars, processes and information that increase the sophistication of what happens inside your organization.  And how this works, just like upward evolution, is going to be different for every level on the Spiral.

In order to understand this more thoroughly, we need some new paradigms.  One of my personal favorites is the idea of a fractal, or the process of fractalization.  The theoretical definition of a fractal is an object that expresses self-similar behavior at a number of scales.  The classical example of a fractal is a tree — as the tree grows and branches, the ratio of main trunk thickness to branch thickness is maintained.  Various ways of calculating this ratio are called the fractal dimension — the general idea being that if a fractal object is made up of lines (one dimension), its fractal dimension is >1.  If a fractal object is two-dimensional, then its fractal dimension >2.  And so on.

In essence, fractal dimension tells us the n-dimensional space-covering properties of the object.  That’s a lot of math jargon!  Bottom line as applied to our new concept of sophistication?  The process of cultural, or v-Meme fractalization tells us how more and more types of behavior in a given social structure are covered by smaller and smaller replications of the social structure.

What will govern this process of sophistication?  It all has to go back to the thermodynamics of the situation — time, space and energetics.  Making your organization more sophisticated likely involves refinement of the types of dynamics that created your org chart in the first place.  And dependent on the v-Meme development level you’re at, these will vary.

Fair warning — the nested nature of any Spiral level of development will come into play — just like the aforementioned Matryoshka dolls.  What that means is that if you’re an Authoritarian v-Meme organization, odds are that the new dynamics created will maximize control at finer and finer scales, and can also affect your Tribal/Magical and Survival v-Meme levels that are embedded in your Authoritarian structure.  As you go up the Spiral, it just broadens your hand.  But if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing, one of those internal Matryoshka v-Memes might just give your larger system a tummy ache.  That’s the way it works.

Examples of sophistication and its manifestation inside social/relational structures aren’t very hard to find.  Few organizations are pure Anything — they’re a little mix of this, a little mix of that, with a big part being determined by whatever the dominant v-Meme is.  Cultural pressures are often all over the v-Meme map, so it’s not surprising in that lack of purity.

There are, I’m sure, millions of examples of the process of increasing sophistication in societies around the world.  Long-time persistent countries are big on them.  One of my favorites is the differentiation in the process of drinking tea.  Japanese tea ceremonies, or chanoyu (茶の湯) vary at the base between informal (chakai 茶会, tea gathering) and formal (chaji (茶事, tea event))  .  The informal one lasts less than a half hour; the formal version, with rituals, comprehensive food and such, can last over four hours.  The Wikipedia article highlighted above is awesome — and shows how increasing sophistication of a given ceremony — Japanese tea ceremonies were originally spiritual practice initiated by Buddhist monks (and as such, it should be no surprise that there are tons of rules and protocols for such ceremonies, originating as they have out of the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme!) Tea ceremonies themselves, were also considered pathways to enlightenment, and a testament to the fact that self-awareness does not always have to work its way linearly up the Spiral.  More and more sections, with more and more rules governing smaller and smaller time fragments of a fractalized process, are a hallmark of a growth of sophistication.

It’s not always Legalism that experiences this kind of fractalization of v-Meme.  Virtually every sophisticated high art in any culture lends refinement to the v-Meme, and the culture its embedded in. In China, a very choreographed type of opera made popular in Beijing is called Beijing Opera, or Jingju (京剧).  Jingju is a great example of highly stylized storytelling, used to reinforce the dominant ideas in Chinese culture at the time of the Qing Dynasty, mostly involving playing one’s part in an Authoritarian society, and doing what you’re told or getting killed.  Mao sensed the form was so powerful that he banned it and implemented “revolutionary opera” along the same lines, with his messages.  As was discussed earlier, things don’t end well for the various characters falling in love, or developing relationships outside the accepted v-Meme set!


Jingju — Beijing Opera Performance  — credit: Leonard G.

In Jingju, the roles are predefined.  Study to perform Jingju starts at an early age, with the ultimate expression of Authoritarian behavior being exhibited between the troupe organizer and the young people let on contract by their parents — indentured servitude.  Since the troupe organizer would essentially take over the raising of the child, the performer would be required to give all money from performances to the organizer until that debt was paid.  Mistakes made during performances resulted in the entire young troupe being beaten with bamboo canes, and young boys who played female roles were conscripted into a side business of sex slavery.  Now that’s some old-timey, self-similar authoritarianism!  In the modern age, not surprisingly, as China has evolved its own v-Meme set, Beijing Opera has become less popular.

There are plenty of examples at the various levels of the Spiral of sophistication of business as well.  One of my favorites involves the Boeing Company.  Building commercial aircraft is an exercise in reliability coupled with complexity management.  When you add to that, the need for interfacing with the FAA, it’s not too hard to believe that the organization that has evolved in that environment is a relatively rigid hierarchy, designed to interface with other Legalistic hierarchies and regulators.

But you can’t get all the synergies you need functioning as a Performance-influenced Legalistic Hierarchy.  Sooner or later, all those parts have to come together and fit.  And if you’re a Legalistic v-Meme hierarchy, there’s only one way to do that — add another department!  These engineers, called Liaison (pronounced Lie’- a -zon) Engineers, do the work of interfacing all the various departments and plane parts together.  The system works.

Self-similar fractal propagation isn’t confined just to the lower v-Memes.  A fascinating example of fractalization of Performance-based v-Memes can be found in what is called Agile Business Practice.  For example, in the Agile Software Development space, software evolves through a collaborative effort between self-organizing, cross-functional teams.  Based on the primary empathetic dynamic of independent relational generation and self-selection, the whole process has grown in sophistication to have stages in the process like scrums, sprints and such.  Hewing to the guiding principles below, one can see that this Performance v-Meme methodology implicitly embraces empathetic development.

Agile Manifesto

  • Customer satisfaction by early and continuous delivery of valuable software
  • Welcome changing requirements, even in late development
  • Working software is delivered frequently (weeks rather than months)
  • Close, daily cooperation between business people and developers
  • Projects are built around motivated individuals, who should be trusted
  • Face-to-face conversation is the best form of communication (co-location)
  • Working software is the principal measure of progress
  • Sustainable development, able to maintain a constant pace
  • Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design
  • Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential

It’s not surprising to see sophistication  in the form of lower v-Meme scaffolding in the higher v-Memes.  Probably no better example of this kind of scaffolding could be found than Dean Leffingwell’s work on the Scaled Agile Framework — a way of implementing the above principles.

SAFe 4.0 Plot.png

Dean Leffingwell’s Scaled Agile Framework process — screen shot

Same principles — scrums, and such — but also an implied hierarchy, with Enterprise Architects, DevOps, Release Mgmt, Agile Teams, and a whole host of other titles.  The goal of all this type of scaffolding is obviously to increase predictability and reliability in an uncertain environment.  But one can see that sophistication can only take you so far — even within the bounds of a sophisticated, pipelined empathetic process based on independently generated relationships.

Sooner or later, you have to evolve.

Takeaways:  Up or Out?  Change is never easy.  Sophistication can help, and may be the answer, especially because it may increase the robustness of your lower-level scaffolding.  The challenge is knowing when you have no choice but to go up — because then, you simply have to invest in a more uncertain way in developing the people you work with.  And that’s been an age-old problem.

Further Reading:  Boy, I just love Wikipedia.  Where else could you get, virtually instantaneously, an article on Jingju, Japanese tea ceremonies, and Agile Frameworks in just seconds?  And for those that don’t want to read Wikipedia to find out all the stuff about Jingju, you can always watch this movie — Farewell My Concubine.  I only got through about 1/3 of it.  Grueling.


7 thoughts on “Managing Proactive Change Inside Your Company — Sophistication vs. Evolution

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s