Who can stop the plane?

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

I was on my way from Helsinki to Stockholm to a workshop on future bio-society. At my own Institute (Behavioral Sciences) the idea of planning a research program on such an esoteric field – from the local perspective – was not seen as important enough to be funded so I just covered the expenses from my own projects. No wonder then that I spent the 55 minutes on the flight to think about this, wondering why it is so difficult to get colleagues inspired about novel ideas and to change the traditional course of matters.

The plane was accelerating and everyone in the cabin could sense the familiar feeling of being forcefully drawn against the back of the seat. Every time on a flight I have felt this unusual feeling that makes me thoroughly aware of the immense powers of the jet engines that create a speed high enough to make flying possible. This time, during those few seconds, I realized how similar the moments of acceleration are to organizational life under a major change and why change is so often experienced as difficult, scary or both. But there were other acute lessons as well.

The either-or grace of change

Once the plane has reached a critical speed, the pilot and we as the passengers, have no either-or alternative: no returning back, the plane has to continue ever faster and fulfill its destiny, without hesitation, and with full force. If it is properly designed and the engineers, mechanics and the pilot have done their job well then the magical powers of the wings, fuselage, and aerodynamics of the plane are revealed and they will show their marvelous capacities as they are meant to do and they will lift the plane and its passengers with grace.

When we face an invitation to accomplish new or even revolutionary things and to change our habits or thought patterns it is not the ideas as such that make us worried or resistant, but the requirement to comply to the new forces without which nothing new will happen. Novel ideas will carry us only if we are ready to give them the same chance that the wings are offered by the speeding plane.

The magical power of motion

Neither the new ideas nor the plane wings will show their magical powers when the plane does not move or the ideas remain as concepts or talk without commitment and action. The magic is revealed only when the change is made to happen with full throttle. Even the best wings will not lift the plane if there is not enough speed to access their sources of the lifting force. The other side of the coin is that also all the faults are revealed at full speed and even before that.

An interesting phenomenon happens when a plane becomes airborne: the moment the acceleration is over, when the pressure against the backrest disappears, we adapt to the new peaceful state of mind in a matter of seconds.  We don’t sense the speed and even though we know it and can read the speed indicators from the visible tv-monitors, we do not feel its presence. The world is stable and predictable again, with no feelings of risk and we continue living our life, life as usual even though we fly at 10 000 meter altitude. Next time you fly, pay attention to this amazing metaphorical transformation and you will understand what it really means to put your trust on something or someone whom you really do not know in detail, who demands a full commitment from you but who also offers a possibility to a remarkable change and progress.

First real tests with the “final” version

Surprisingly often major organizational changes are designed and implemented without careful, real testing. A recent example from Finland was the renewal of the ticket sales system of the Finnish Railways VR and its it-environment designed together with the world-leading ict consultant company Accenture and that led to a total nation-wide disaster, when people simply could not get their tickets and it took weeks to repair the situation. The explanation to the mess was something like “We did not expect such a crowding in the channels.”

Another example comes from my own University (and from the whole university system of Finland), where the institute and faculty structure were recently thoroughly re-designed – without any testing – in the whole organization when at the same time also the salary systems and the legal status of the university were totally transformed. Using the plane analogy, it was like a new plane model had been introduced, with a totally new wing design, new fuel system, new service and crew organization but with the absolutely weird change strategy that all planes must be tested at the same time, without piloting, and everywhere with a full load of passengers.

Collateral damages on purpose

It is amazing to think that some organizational designers can really end up doing something like this, and that even the management can bluntly state that  “The change is under good control”. But they decided to use such a change strategy and to open the organizational throttles, wide open everywhere at the same time. The answer to the question “Why did they do this?” is simple: the risks were not recognized and it was estimated that even if the risks would manifest, the losses could be tolerated. It was like the famous movie line of defending the losses that can be called “collateral damage”. It is scary to wonder where might such a gloomy strategy have its cultural origin.

As an institute, where I have worked all my academic life, we have now been accelerating and trying to become airborne. But it is already clear that we will crash: our master thesis output has collapsed in two years and the worried passengers have started an intense conversation while the plane speeds up. Some believe that the problem is in the plane crew and that we should now support the crew members who perform worst and forget those that actually perform best. Some think that by organizing passenger meetings and by offering convincing instructions to them, it becomes possible to improve the situation. At the university level, the community of professors is so multi-dimensional in their competencies that it is impossible to end up with any coherent suggestion of what to do except to offer variable criticism and wail.

Then there are the organizational aliens like me who think that the problem is in the theory of aerodynamics (what makes an institute fly) and engine design (where the institute gets its power). In an accelerating plane this disagreement creates fear and many are already looking for parachutes.

Courageous pilots could stop the plane

The wing design of a plane is made to lift the plane with grace and beautiful balance. It is like the motivation of instructors, researchers, professors, and lectors that will carry them to marvelous achievements.  Both the wing design properties and the motivation of the staff in an organization remain invisible until the speed of change is high enough. But then also the faults will be revealed and if the test is conducted with all the planes and all the stuff the costs will be tremendous. In the case of our national university system some of the passengers are already seeing the construction failures in the wings but they have no connection with the constructors, pilots, or engineers and they cannot mend the situation. It is all up to the pilots who could still stop then plane, but do the have the courage to do that and would they be rewarded or punished for doing that?

I landed safely at Stockholm, spent an inspiring day with people having fresh new ideas and visions on the future bio-society and I started developing a concept approach for understanding the determinants of “future bio-behavior”. As often happens on well-planned journeys, something unexpected takes place: I met a brilliant physicist colleague, similarly worried about the changes taking place in our universities, and who on the way back home inspired me to plan and write another blog, on “The origins of physics” and “The theory of weak signals” and worrying less about these gloomy organizational events when the plane started accelerating towards Helsinki.

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