To be healthy, organisations – like human beings – have to operate in balance. Going temporarily out of balance is OK, but if this goes on for too long, it’s dangerous. Just like riding a bike, the balance is the minimum organisations need to be able to move forward.
What kinds of things need to be balanced? There are three essential balances. The first one is between autonomy and cohesion, the second is about maintaining both stability and diversity, and the third is balancing between exploration and exploitation. The important thing to recognise here is that the nature of each balance will differ between organisations. And what needs to be done to restore balance will change over time. So we can’t be prescriptive or learn “best practice” from others. We can only give people the glasses to see what is going on and the knowledge that will help them maintain the balances in their organisations.
I’ve been doing the Essential Balances workshop for four years now. During the workshop, all three of them seem relatively easy to get, yet a bit more difficult to work with and create a habit of. Based on the feedback I received from people using in practice these glasses for organisational diagnosis and design, the first and the third balance, Autonomy-Cohesion and Exploitation-Exploration, come more naturally (with certain difficulties in the fractal dimension), while the second one, Stability-Diversity, creates problems. All three of them and a few more will be explained in detail in the forthcoming book Essential Balances, but until then, I’ll make some clarifications here. I hope it will be of use also for people who are not familiar with this practice.
Stability and Diversity. At first glance, it might be difficult to see it as a balance. In fact, it covers three dynamics. So, it might be easier to see it as three different balances. Different, yet somehow the same. And the key to it is exactly in these two words: different and same.
The concepts of stability and diversity operate in different dimensions. Stability is sameness in time, while diversity is difference in space. (Time&Space is also another pair of glasses, used within the QUTE framework). When we say that the oil price is stable, we mean that it doesn’t change much over a certain period. Same for the temperature, sea level, people behaviour. Try searching for “is stable” in the news, and you’ll get mostly three types of results: one, about currency or growth rate; second, referring to the political situation somewhere; and third, applying it to the condition of a person in a hospital after some accident.
Diversity on the other hand is used for difference in space. It is for having different things within something uniting or containing them. We use it for restaurant offerings, for teams when their members are of different ethnicity, age, and gender. We also hear the word biodiversity is used frequently ecological context.
The balance between stability and diversity can be observed in the dimensions that they typically operate in language. But it can also be observed the opposite dimension, or across. This will become clearer when same and different is applied in time and space. And we start with the simplest case, taking only sameness and only time.
When sameness is used only in time, then stability can be seen as balance in itself. It can be applied to any other balance for being kept in time. The opposite of stability is instability. Instability is referring to stability, it is about stability. A plane flight is unstable when there is turbulence. Unstable is used to describe a flight, when its stability is disturbed by turbulence. We use instability only when there is a possibility for restoring the normal operation. We won’t apply it when there is a plane crash.
This would be the first hidden balance: Stability (in time) – Instability (in time). Or, to use the other two words, maintaining the sameness, when it is challenged by difference. Maybe a more appropriate way of writing this variation would be with stability in the middle:
instability – stability – instability
Note that, while trying to see stability as a balance in itself, diversity appeared anyway, disguised as instability.
It seems that using same and different in time works so far. Perhaps it is so, because we allowed another pair to sneak in: good and bad. Stable is good, unstable is bad. Now, since good and bad have been revealed, let’s play with them. Let’s try for example to see stability – why not – as bad. Then the balance will be: Stability (in time, is bad) – Diversity (in time, is good). If people who are already comfortable wearing Stability-Diversity glasses can see it easily that way, this won’t be the case for people who are not. With them, something like “Rut – Innovation” would work better. And indeed, when organizations do the same things the same way, while expecting better results, they won’t get them. Worse, when organizations do things the same way, while their environment changes, they are increasingly unable to achieve even the same results.
A more neutral way to talk about this flavour of the balance would be as Stability-Change. The biased versions Stability-Instability and Rut-Innovation retain their utility in some contexts.
Just as it was with the other balances, the scale is important. Good and bad in “Stability (in time, is bad) – Diversity (in time, is good)” should be understood only at a certain scale. The way it is written above implies the need for innovation. After the innovation is implemented, the new state have to be stabilised, at least for a while. Now, here is where the scale makes the difference. During that period the change brought be the innovation should settle in. The changed organisation should find new stability. The balance for that settling period should then be seen as “Stability (in time, is good) – Diversity (in time, is bad)”. There will be special attention to this in the chapter “Exploitation and Exploration”.
We tried “Stability is bad”. If we do the same with difference in time, this will form “Innovation is bad”. It may sound strange, but it is an actual strategy for some healthcare practices, as well as for companies like General Motors, Ford and American Airlines. It even has a name, exnovation.
So far, we saw Stability-Diversity in time, which can be looked at as Stability-Change, Stability-Instability, and Rut-Innovation. The first perspective is neutral, the second is when we need to maintain stability, and the third when stability is maintained in spite the need for change. Now, the analogue for Diversity in space would be to look at it as a balance itself. This is the second hidden balance, Diversity-Homogeneity. Too much diversity might be bad for stability in some cases, in others – the more the better.
And there is a third hidden balance between stability and diversity, where stability operates in time and diversity in both space and time. This dynamic is a bit more complicated and it probably won’t get clear without examples. A very good one is the adaptive immune system. I’ll leave that for another post. For now, here’s a short description: having more diversity (in space) or trying out different things (diversity in time) could be very important for maintaining stability (in time). However, too much diversity in some cases can destabilise.
I hope this makes Stability-Diversity feel more natural. If not, here’s another way to think about it, which both syntactically and semantically looks more like a balance:
Homeostasis – Heterostasis
The word homeostasis is coming from the Greek ὅμοιος homoios, “similar” and στάσις stasis, “standing still”, to suggest the idea of “staying the same”. Hetero- comes from ἕτερος [héteros], “another”, and is often used as a prefix meaning “different”. This would give another way of thinking about Stability-Diversity as the ability to “maintain sameness” balanced with the ability to “maintain difference”.
Essential Balances in Organisations
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