There’s a science fiction story I read a long time ago, where a man goes into the future, into an unfamiliar urban environment. He picks up a device which is lying by the roadside. He can see that the device is broken, and though it is unfamiliar to him, he has a sense of the intentions of its designer and how it might work. He mends it.
It is this subtle sense, that of seeing how things might work, and mending them, that creates useful change in organisations.
We can’t always, or perhaps ever, start with a “blank sheet of paper”. As a consultant I go into a business which has people, processes, and things, all interacting and operating. The job is to create something new which both repairs what’s there, and makes the business more whole and more alive.
When a business or project is initiated, there are gaps left between the parts. Centralising the sales group creates mismatches in roles and accountabilities. The management team is disconnected from the field engineers. The connection between the invoicing process and sales is somewhat disjoint. .
So if my job is to create a new sales process, then I try to do that in such a way that it makes connections across the gaps. The people doing invoices can see themselves as part of the sales process: after all they are dealing with customers. Creating and communicating the new processn can bring teams together. During the change, people see how their historic roles might fit together in the future.
I see my objective as not only to create the new sales process but also to improve the overall business, to bridge gaps and connect teams. Thus in a piecemeal way every intervention contributes to a business transformation.
Every intervention is a repair.
I first read this philosophy in Christopher Alexander’s book “A Timeless Way of Building” published in 1979. Although this is a treatise on architecture and town planning, he has much to teach us about organisational transformation:
“When we repair something in this new sense, we assume we are going to transform it, that new wholes will be born, that, indeed, the entire whole which is being repaired will become a different whole as a result of the repair” (Chapter 24, The Process of Repair.)
The interesting outcome of the science fiction story about the time-traveller was that when he picked up and mended the device that he had found, the inhabitants of the city marvelled, because he had transformed it into a new device. He had given it powers beyond those for which it had been designed. In this way, in the spirit of mending and repair, we gradually transform our organisations.