In a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, Benjamin Franklin stated: “our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would add to this quote the fact that change is also certain. In a way, both death and taxes are two states on a long chain of changes that we personally experience.
Change is built into the fabric of the universe. With the recent update from NASA from the Planck satellite study, the Big Bang took place 13.8 billion years ago initiating change in our physical world which has been ongoing with ever increasing layers of complexity. Our own human experience reflects this expansive change and increasing complexity. For instance, life in New York City today is much different than a hundred years ago. Given our modern access to information, we can appreciate change just by browsing through Wikipedia and searching for the temporal differences between now and any time period.
Organizations, as the rest of the universe, are not exempt from change. Reflecting on your employment history you can easily identify the changes that took place at the organizations where you worked while you were there and thereafter. Some of these organizations are no longer in existence or have merged with others. Some remain but may be addressing different market needs. Even mega-companies that have existed for over a hundred years have reinvented themselves multiple times. The AT&T of today is not the same organization we grew up with. In my own experience, not a single company I worked with in the past remains in its original form, not even by name.
Dr. Clare Graves, the professor and researcher that originated the field of Spiral Dynamics, defined change in five different states:
- Alpha fit – Alpha is the current steady state. It has its unique set of problems to solve through continuous improvement. Lean, Six Sigma, MBOs, and any other process that enables an organization to improve its current performance are appropriate for alpha fit. Change in this stage is also referred to as “first order change.” Some call it evolutionary change in contrast to much larger change which is categorized as revolutionary. Alpha fit requires the mindset and leadership of continuous improvement.
- Beta stress – When the problems of alpha fit are solved or changes in the environment introduce new ones, beta stress is manifested. This is the state that requires larger changes (second order or revolutionary). The mindset and processes to manage large changes are very different than what we use for continuous improvement. For instance, most for-profit organizations have quarterly goals for financial and continuous improvement execution. From rewards to SEC reporting, our systems tend to keep us in the alpha fit modality and do not give us readily available processes to deal with beta stress. Successful large changes stem from the early recognition of beta stress and the execution of change using different systems designed for this purpose.
- Gamma trap – This state is manifested when the beta stress is either not recognized or not acted upon properly. Gamma trap is crisis. In this state, drastic decisions could be made that compromise the sustainability of an organization such as layoffs and elimination of product lines. Timing is critical in gamma trap. The longer an entity spends in this state the more energy is required to exit and the larger the potential damage to the organization. Gamma trap can be completely avoided by organizations that recognize the beta stress and are able to move to a new alpha without being trapped in the change process.
- Delta surge – This is the state that generates the solutions to move to a new alpha from the gamma trap. Organizations, after recognizing that they are “trapped” and must solve their current problems, invest energy and resources to move to a new alpha. Dr. Graves’ research on change posits that new alpha levels tend to be higher and easier for organizations that avoid the gamma trap and delta surge. He referred to the ability to move from beta stress directly to a new alpha as “flex.” In modern complexity theory jargon, flex would be the adaptability of an organization to the new needs of its environment and the natural integration of new levels of complexity.
- New alpha fit – When the new problems presented by the beta stress are solved, a new alpha state is reached. As stated, this new state can be reached directly from beta stress through “flex” or through the more taxing progression through gamma trap and delta surge. Once an organization has reached a new alpha state, the conditions are returned for continuous improvement. It is important to note that large organizations may be undergoing multiple shifts to new alphas while improving current alpha states. Single alpha shifts are easier to discern in smaller organizations which tend to involve all of its members at once.
After gaining understanding of Dr. Graves’ change framework, it would be natural for leaders to want to know more about flex. How do we avoid the gamma trap and delta surge altogether?
From my own experience, I believe that it takes the presence of transformative leaders to recognize that the organization is entering beta stress. Too often beta stress is recognized when the pain levels are high. The wisdom and experience of transformative leaders can lead to the early identification of beta stress and the call for action. I also believe that only transformative leaders are able to guide an organization from beta stress to a new alpha. Continuous improvement leaders (whom are always needed) are not equipped to guide or handle this type of change.
Flex also involves new systems because new problems are being addressed. We are used to the old hammer and think that it will do the job. The new systems need to start with a vision of what the new alpha looks like. Along with a vision, intentionality is fundamental. Before strategies and plans are established, intentions need to be cemented across the organization. Flex starts in the world of intention, and not with plans, charts or spreadsheets. Transformative leaders need to align their intentions and build the layer of intentionality as the bedrock of flex. Once accomplished, the rest of the shift to the new alpha can be easier and more mechanical.