Organizational Improvisation

By Ken N. Kamoche; Miguel Pina E Cunha et al. | Go to book overview

10

The art of continuous change

Linking complexity theory and time-paced evolution in relentlessly shifting organizations

Shona L. Brown and Kathleen M. Eisenhardt

In contrast to the punctuated equilibrium model of change, this inductive study of multiple-product innovation in six firms in the computer industry examines how organizations engage in continuous change. Comparisons of successful and less-successful firms show, first, that successful multiple-product innovation blends limited structure around responsibilities and priorities with extensive communication and design freedom to create improvisation within current projects. This combination is neither so structured that change cannot occur nor so unstructured that chaos ensues. Second, successful firms rely on a wide variety of low-cost probes into the future, including experimental products, futurists, and strategic alliances. Neither planning nor reacting is as effective. Third, successful firms link the present and future together through rhythmic, time-paced transition processes. We develop the ideas of "semistructures," "links in time," and "sequenced steps" to crystallize the key properties of these continuously changing organizations and to extend thinking about complexity theory, time-paced evolution, and the nature of core capabilities.

The punctuated equilibrium model of change assumes that long periods of small, incremental change are interrupted by brief periods of discontinuous, radical change (Abernathy and Utterback, 1978; Tushman and Anderson, 1986; Rosenkopf and Tushman, 1995). Fundamental breakthroughs such as DNA cloning, the automobile, jet aircraft, and xerography are examples of radical change. The central argument of the punctuated equilibrium model is that change oscillates between long periods of stability and short bursts of radical change that fundamentally alter an industry (Gersick, 1991). Although incremental change is assumed to occur, radical change is the focus of interest in the punctuated equilibrium model (e.g. Tushman and Anderson, 1986; Romanelli and Tushman, 1994; Utterback, 1994).

While the punctuated equilibrium model is in the foreground of academic interest, it is in the background of the experience of many firms. Many firms compete by changing continuously. For example, Sears' president, Arthur Martinez, recently claimed, "If you look at the best retailers out there, they are constantly reinventing themselves" (Greenwald, 1996:54). For firms such as Intel, Wal-Mart, 3M, Hewlett-Packard, and Gillette, the ability to change rapidly and continuously, especially by developing new products, is not only a core competence, it is also at the heart of their cultures. For these firms, change is not the rare, episodic phenomenon described by the punctuated equilibrium model but, rather, it is endemic to the way these organizations compete. Moreover, in high-velocity industries with short product cycles and rapidly competitive landscapes, the ability to engage in rapid

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