Note: Lee Barkow wrote the following analysis in the 1990s; it is just as timely today!
Great Ideas in ecology for the 1990’s
Some thoughts on Organizational Change
By Lee Barkow
I recently read an article in BioScience Magazine entitled “Great Ideas in ecology for the 1990’s. As I read the article, it occurred to me that there were numerous similarities between natural systems and management systems in terms of dynamics and the interaction of elements within those systems. It may be helpful for us to focus on management change in terms of natural systems, which we better understand. I have attempted to take some of the “great ideas in ecology for the 1990’s” and relate them to management changes much like what the Bureau is going through. Hopefully, change will be better understood by us and we will be able to better deal with change. It is important to understand and accept that change is a normal and healthy part of an ecosystem and organization. Any system that is stagnant is on the decline and soon to be replaced with other components who have adapted to the new “environment”. So we begin with Concept 1.
Concept 1: An ecosystem is a thermodynamically open, far from equilibrium, system.
Translation: All organizations will and must change over time to remain effective in the changing environment in which they exist.
Concept 2: In hierarchical organization of ecosystems,species interactions that tend to be unstable, nonequilibrium, or even chaotic are constrained by the slower interactions that characterize large systems.
Translation: The State office and Washington Office often appear to get in the way of District and Area Offices who are trying to get something done. The higher level offices play a stabilizing role in the organizational environment and thus play an important role. Without the stabilization provided by subsequent level of organization, the while organization would soon be out of control.
Concept 3: The first signs of environmental stress usually occur at the population level, affecting especially sensitive species. When the stress produces detectable ecosystem level effects, the health and survival of the whole system is in jeopardy.
Translation: By looking to the next lower administrative level, one can determine if organizational change proposals are causing “organizational stress. The downfall of the organization will probably come from the bottom. If, at the lowest level of the organization, effectiveness is being impaired by the organizational proposal, it may be a sign that the proposal may be flawed.
Concept 4: Feedback in an ecosystem is internal and has no control. There are no thermostats, chemostats, or other set-point controls in the biosphere.
Translation: When a management action is taken, plan to receive comments, criticism, and complements, whether it’s wanted or not. This is what makes the organization run and adjust to management change. Without feedback neither employees or managers can make a successful adjustment.
Concept 5: Natural selection may occur at more than one level.
Translation: When a decision to change a part of the organization is made, the whole organization will change to re-establish the balance between organization levels.
Concept 6: There are two kinds of natural selection, or two aspects of the struggle for existence: organism versus organism, which leads to competition, and organism versus environment, which leads to mutualism.
Translation: When organizational change is proposed, employees will first try to determine who they can replace (organism versus organism). If a “new home” is not found, the second strategy is for the employee to try to determine how they may fit into the new organization. To be successful, managers must help their employees determine how they will “fit”. Both competition and mutualism are natural and should be encouraged within reasonable bounds. Organizations that help their employees integrate into the new organizational structure will be healthier than those who require employees to “fend for themselves.”
Concept 7: Competition may lead to diversity rather than extinction. Species are often able to shift their functional niche to avoid the deleterious effects of competition.
Translation: During organizational change, employees may be asked, and prefer, to be assigned to other duties or functions rather than be eliminated from the organization. Often, “bloody battles” can be avoided by employees being able and willing to accept a functional niche shift (taking another type of job).
Concept 8: Evolution of mutualism increases when resources become scarce. Cooperation between species for mutual benefit has special survival value when resources become tied up in the biomass.
Translation: During organizational change, the employees will figure out how to work together and put together an effective organization especially when they perceive that the “resources” are being taken by higher organization levels. This is especially true if there are less positions that employees can look to occupy. The only successful survival strategy is to work toward a solution with a mutual benefit for the employee and organization.
Concept 9: Indirect effects may be as important as direct interactions in a food web and may contribute to network mutualism.
Translation: What happens at other organizational levels may be as important to the employee as what is happening at his or her level. When an organizational change happens above or below the employee, peers, at the employees level in the organization tend to pull together for mutual benefit.
Concept 10: Since the beginning of life on Earth, organisms have not only adapted to physical conditions but have modified the environment in ways that have proven to be beneficial to life in general.
Translation: We have always successfully adapted to organizational change and have usually benefitted as an organization.
Concept 11: An expanded approach to biodiversity should include genetic and landscape diversity, not just species diversity.
Translation: When trying to achieve workforce diversity, consider geographic diversity of candidates, previous experience diversity, cultural diversity, religious diversity; and not just sex and racial diversity.
Concept 12: Input management is the only way to deal with nonpoint pollution.
Translation: A solid plan to execute organizational change needs to be developed which is front end loaded. This should help avoid having to spend time comforting employees that feel they have been mistreated during the process. Once the process is perceived to be “tainted”, the cost of repair (organizationally, psychologically) is much greater than preventing the situation in the first place.
Concept 13: An expenditure of energy is always required to produce or maintain an energy flow or a material cycle.
Translation: Once organizational change is begun, a substantial amount of energy needs to be expended to keep it going. The energy must be passed from decision maker to managers/supervisors and ultimately to the employees without a substantial loss of energy levels. In addition, each subordinate organizational level must be given the materials (ability) to accomplish the reorganization or downsizing if it is to be effective.
Concept 14: Transition costs are always associated with major changes in nature and in human affairs.
Translation: Once the decision is made to change an organization, everyone must accept the fact that it is going to cost something in terms of dollars, short term productivity, and shifting priorities.