The Common Thread of Biologists and Learning Organization Structures: Nature's Lessons in Growth and Change Prove Instructive

By Birkner, Ruth McIntyre; Birkner, Lawrence R. | Occupational Hazards, August 1999 | Go to article overview

The Common Thread of Biologists and Learning Organization Structures: Nature's Lessons in Growth and Change Prove Instructive


Birkner, Ruth McIntyre, Birkner, Lawrence R., Occupational Hazards


Nature lessons in growth and change prove instructive.

It's new - hot off the press! The Dance of Change (Doubleday, 1999) by Peter Senge, et al,(*) covers the challenges to sustaining momentum in learning organizations. This fieldbook provides strategies and methods for moving beyond the first steps of corporate change and generating long-lasting results. The authors attest that most change efforts such as Total Quality Management and re-engineering "die on the vine" because they do not produce the expected results of employees are not given the tools to produce these results. No organization is immune from the issue. Private industry, schools, healthcare, government and nonprofit organizations have poor track records in sustaining significant change.

Why do many change initiatives fail? To figure it out, Senge says, we need to think more like biologists and less like managers. We need to think of organizations as living organisms. With our backgrounds in science, these concepts should be familiar and comfortable.

Growth in nature comes from the interrelationship between reinforcing growth processes and limiting processes. We plant a seed, then fertilize, water and weed. Given the right temperature and environmental conditions, the seedling sprouts roots and begins to pop out of the ground. How much the seedling grows depends upon limits of water, soil nutrients, warmth and room for expansion. Should the seedling stop growing before it reaches maturity, some constraint has occurred - not enough sunlight, too much water, insects, or temperature extremes. The pattern is S-shaped and occurs continually in nature because of the way nature generates and controls growth. All individual organisms grow in the same manner - initial acceleration, then gradual slowing until adult size is achieved.

With our biologist's lens, we can see that most organizational change initiatives follow this life cycle pattern. These efforts may not see the light of day if leaders - like gardeners - stand over the plants and shout at them to grow or try harder. Leaders should realize the limiting factors that could slow or delay change. They need to clearly understand the gap between vision and reality and address these limiting factors (i.e., resources, capabilities, competencies and competition) that keep change from occurring.

Senge and his colleagues believe "that all efforts to create change in corporations will naturally come up against inhibitions. Leverage comes not from 'pushing harder' or 'changing faster,' but from learning to recognize and redesign the built-in limits that keep change initiatives from growing. …

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