When I’m in TX, where my mom and I have a house and 14 acres north of San Antonio, I spend about two hours every morning clearing cedar, so-called but they’re actually members of the Juniper family. These invasive and water-hogging trees have pretty much taken over the grasslands of the Texas Hill Country and they’re just about impossible to kill. The only animals that will eat them are goats but even they only like the seedlings, so first you’ve got to whack out all the growth. I’ve taken to going out every morning when it’s cool with a good quality tree lopper to commit cedarcide. (eventually I’ll have to burn the stumps too) When friends visit, I put them to work, and it is emotionally very satisfying. (I’m tempted to say it is emotionally satisfying for me to have them do the work, but I’m out there with them too.)
I got to thinking yesterday there are plenty of metaphors to be drawn from clearing cedar that can be applied to clearing organizations, i.e. organizational change. (Organizational change being such a complex and daunting subject you can actually draw lessons for it from just about every moment of life–the movie Finding Nemo, for example, is rich in lessons to be learned…but anyway, I digress…)
When you clear large cedars, i.e. those taller than a person, and your tree lopper can only handle about one inch-diameter trunks, it is best to lop off the tall skinny parts first. Then you’re able to look down at the remaining cedar, see its pattern, and attack the radiating branches killing new beneficial growth underneath.
So it is with change. To really do organizational change well, you have to acquire a proper vantage point where you can really see the best places to attack. This place is probably somewhere near the top of the organization, where the different processes meet to confront success or failure. Otherwise, you’re like the blind men and the elephant, whacking away at whatever you touch first.
The toughest cedars to attack are the ones that have become huge spider webs, with many entangled branches. They usually send out what I think of as running branches low and parallel to the ground, often difficult to see in the brush. But it is critical you attack these.
Any organization around for a while will have its share of spider web departments and processes, which have a pernicious effect on the bottom line but are difficult to identify unless you are standing right on top of them. And you will also find spider web people. They can be unhelpful–i.e. they form the center of unhealthy dynamics in your group, but they often can be good–they are the master hubs that allow otherwise disfunctional processes to deliver worthy output…or they are the key advisers whom others turn to for knowledge. Many change efforts fail when they are unable to account for the complex dynamic of real work.
Unless you have powerful equipment, your cedar attack campaign will leave behind many stumps upon which others can trip. Eventually you have to remove these stumps but if you try to dislodge each one as you go, it bogs you down and I, at least, find it more psycholigically motivating to look back each morning on a larger field of accomplisment.
Similarly, organizational change efforts can get bogged down tackling wicked problems that no doubt need to be removed at some point. But be wary of the psychological costs tackling these tough spots impose on your followers and lukewarm supporters. Steady momentum in most cases is more valuable than perfection.
When I go out to clear cedar, I never wear a watch or carry anything that would reveal the time. I just set myself a target area and proceed until I’m finished. It strikes me as pointless to use time to measure my effort given that I’m in it for the long haul, but I find that I’m usually ready to break after about two hours of work.
This “time consciouness” seems to be the most important learning from cedar clearing for organizational change. The imposition of what, when you cogitate, are arbitrary deadlines on change efforts is usually one of the dynamics that most undermine them. Think about it! If you have correctly determined what your group needs to move forward, you should want to do it no matter how long it takes. Few change efforts actually need to have drop dead-lines, but these are imposed because of the expected tenure of a particular leadership team, the exigencies of some budget cycle, or, worst of all, the sense–I think perverted–that new, better things either have to be done in accordance with some arbitrary schedule or… not done at all. I remember once being told that time was the cheapest type of literary device. I would simply offer that time and schedule should almost never be the key organising principle for your change effort, and yet observe how often they are.
There is another reason why time limits are so common. Discombobulation and a decline in productivity often occur early on in a change effort, as individuals struggle to learn new ways of being and doing. The response then is to work through the change process as quickly as possible, which is usually a mistake given the complexity of what you’re trying to accomplish. The best approach, barring an emergency where change is necessary to prevent disasters, is to be a tortoise–or perhaps a trotting horse, when it comes both to organizational change and cedar clearing. Move at a steady pace, keep your wits about you and your head up so you know when it is time to take a break.
Check out this slide package for a good presentation on this and other pitfalls on the way to organizational change.