Sunday, November 17, 2013

Organizational Heavy Gravity Days

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on.........................."

Life itself is a cycle.  You're born, you grow up from infancy to adolescence to middle age to old age, and you die.  Organizational theorists have posited that organizations too have natural cycles - and unavoidable stages of development from inception to maturity, to cessation of existence.

There are numerous models describing the stages.  In the private sector, "the Adizes model (named after Dr. Ichak Adizes) suggests organizations start in the courtship stage. In it, founders are dreaming up what they want to do.  Entrepreneurship is the dominant mental model resulting in the eventual founding of the company.

The infant stage follows, with an emphasis on production and time pressures dominating everyone’s attention.

Infancy is followed by the go-go stage. Organizations that have reached this stage have figured out how to deliver value into the social systems they serve and are rewarded with supportive customers. Rapid expansion, personalized leadership, some planning, and fast decision making are the hallmarks of organizations in this stage. The go-go years bring financial growth and expansion.

Adolescence is the next stage. It is in this stage that planning and coordination become important.  Administrative activities increase at the expense of both entrepreneurial endeavors and production. The mental models of stability and conservatism surface and start to dominate the way the organization conducts its business. Formalized rules and policies emerge.

The prime stage is next in the organizational lifecycle. In this stage the emphasis is on efficiency. Organizational boundaries are erected and the company starts to lose touch with its environment. Goals and aspirations remain stable but the desire to grow and change starts to disappear. Stability and predictability become the prevailing mental models.

The final stage is maturity. It is in this stage where organizations become paternalistic seeking a comfortable organizational climate. There is a low emphasis on production.  Relationships are formal and little innovation takes place."

Speakman Management Consulting provides a nonprofit six stage framework (Adapted from: The 5 Life Stages of Nonprofits, Judith Sharken Simon, 2002 and The Conservation Company, 1997), which includes the following developmental stages (and which parallels pretty much the above model):
  • "Grassroots invention
  • Start-up incubation
  • Adolescent growing
  • Mature sustainability
  • Stagnation and renewal
  • Decline and shut-down"
In both models the problems come late in the game for those that succeeded in establishing themselves in their marketplaces - where the organization "loses sight of its market, focuses on program development primarily geared to fund-raising, has insufficient cash reserves, clings to rigidity in management, and becomes more reactive than proactive." Continued existence becomes the goal.  Eventually, the negatives become insurmountable and the organization is simply no longer viable.

Sound familiar?

It should, because it accurately describes an increasingly common condition with our field; a condition now so prevalent that it has become a front burner issue for all our disciplines and sub-sectors.  Some argue that our financial problems are the cause of the other symptoms of older organizational age, and that these problems are really part of another cycle:  the ups and down of the economy. But, first, while the economy may have ups and downs, and periodic winners and losers, to think of it as always moving between feast or famine may ignore the reality that the "new normal" may be that we are not ever going to return to an economic model that for decades was the bedrock of arts organization's existence; and second, some arts organizations survive the economic downturns, while others do not.

The challenge for our organizations is to recognize the stage at which they have arrived.  Knowing and accepting that an organization is in the late stages of its development is the first step in moving towards renewal; towards a renaissance of ideas and relevance within the marketplace.

What keeps us from pursuit of such a path?  Denial?  Fear that the changes necessary are antithetical to the original mission?  Poor management and leadership?  Bad decision making?  Complacency?  Those and more.

One of the problems is I think, another set of cycles to which we are prisoner - the energy rhythms which often, despite our best intentions, paralyze us.

When I was just out of college, during the 'hippie" times, when all things were about individual growth and self-awareness, one of the buzz ideas we latched onto was managing our "biorhythms" - defined by Wikipedia as:
"According to believers in biorhythms, a person's life is influenced by rhythmic biological cycles that affect one's ability in various domains, such as mental, physical and emotional activity. These cycles begin at birth and oscillate in a steady (sine wave) fashion throughout life; thus, by modeling them mathematically, a person's level of ability in each of these domains can be predicted from day to day."
You could even buy a little plastic biorhythm device that you could set to your birthday and by moving the little dials see where your mental, physical and emotional rhythms would be best aligned for the optimum positive energy - thus allowing you to predict when times were auspicious for certain endeavors.  Of course, though the idea of being able to accurately predict when you were in the "zone" as it were, was terribly seductive, the whole notion has been thoroughly debunked.  Yet there remains the unassailable reality for each of us that there are times when we have a lot of energy and seem to easily get things done and moving, and times when we don't - and that many times that reality is apart from such factors as lack of sleep or illness or anything over which we have control.

I go to the gym four times a week and have for decades.  Sometimes I think I am going to have a great workout, and I end up lagging through the whole routine.  Other times, i just want to do the minimum and get out of there, but end up having a really great workout.  I personally chalk it up to heavy and light gravity days (hey, that's as good a theory as biorhythms).  The point is that there seems to be some cycle of when things go well and when they do not; when we get things done and even create some magic, and when we just can't focus no matter how hard we try - even if that cycle's origins, genesis and operation remains a mystery.

The same seems true in our work.  We have days that, despite our best intentions, or even threatening deadlines, we just don't seem to be able to produce; days when a systemic ennui engulfs us and keeps us from any kind of productivity, let alone the spark of real creativity.  Writers call it "writer's block".

The natural and commonplace response to those "days" is to either beat your head against the wall and work though it, or to put whatever it is off until tomorrow.
tomorrow (noun) - a mystical land where 99% of all human motivation, productivity and achievement is stored.
When we plow ahead because we think we must (that it is an unacceptable weakness not to be able to move forward), we are, as often as not, left with the inescapable reality that such an approach just doesn't work.  The gravity is too heavy that day (or week or whatever).  Putting things off until tomorrow is sometimes the only option.  And while sometimes that is the best (and most logical) approach, and other times an impossible solution, it is almost always the default option if it is available.

I think perhaps organizations too have periods within each stage of their development for which there are "heavy" gravity days (weeks, months), when their "biorhythms" are not in sync; periods when despite their best intentions they just can't move forward.   In that reality, both the default option to plow ahead, and the default option of postponement often has the same result:  things don't get better, often they get worse.  Those periods seem more pronounced as the organization moves to maturity, stagnation and old age.

In the early days of an organization, energy and ideas abound.  Complacency is non-existent.  Nothing pulls the free flow of ideas downward.  But those days don't last.  They give way to bad habits resulting in the organization getting stuck.  And for many organizations, the paralysis of ennui keeps them stuck.

What to do?  How to fight gravity?  I have no idea, other than a good starting point might be recognition of the situation as "reality", and then assessing the viable options.  By recognizing and observing those periods when we seem irrevocably stuck and unable to move forward, both as individuals and as organizations, perhaps we can glean some lessons as to why it happens and how to move beyond it.  Sometimes the "gravity" is so heavy, there is nothing one can do except wait until tomorrow.  As Scarlett O'Hara said in Gone With The Wind:  "Tomorrow is another day."  The problem is that at some point, you run out of tomorrows.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit.

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