The Poetry of Organizational Change

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“Successful organizational change,” he said, “requires analysis, diagnosis and dissatisfaction with the status quo.”

“It also requires a process for getting the change started, and it requires an ideal vision for the future. 

“The first part—the diagnosis—is analytical. It’s about collecting evidence.

“But creating an ideal vision? No amount of evidence will help you. 

“Creating an ideal vision—that’s the land of poets.”

Being a professor myself, it’s a rare treat to get to sit in on another professor’s lecture. It’s an even better treat when that other professor is someone as knowledgeable about his subject matter and as skilled in his delivery as Frank Barrett

Frank is a professor in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. He’s had a long and distinguished career there, punctuated by a number of visiting professorships, including service as a visiting scholar at Harvard Business School from 2008 to 2010. His 2012 book Yes to the Mess explores the lessons we can draw from jazz and improvisation as they apply to leadership in turbulent environments. 

I’ve been told that he sometimes demonstrates improvisational jazz on a keyboard in the classroom. 

Frank didn’t have time to make music in the classroom with us, but he did spend about two hours providing his take on leadership and organizational change to me and 22 other commanders in the U.S. Navy. I was there participating in a two-week course for senior officers in the Navy’s Human Resources Community. Much of our classroom work had to do with specific matters germane to the management of people within the Navy, but we ventured outside of that to bigger topics with a handful of class sessions. 

This was one of those sessions. 

For me, the genius of Frank’s discussion on what I’m calling “the poetry of organizational change” is that it highlights the fundamental challenge of leadership. Namely, true leadership is about going somewhere new and uncovering unpredictable possibilities. Leadership is inextricably connected with learning and change. It’s about noticing the phenomena hidden in the mundane, building that which never existed, creating a space in which people can be vulnerable and take risks. 

Those activities, no matter how hard one may try, will never fit into an algorithm or a spreadsheet. Don’t get me wrong, analytics and statistics are wonderful, powerful tools. They’re great for understanding what’s going on now. Yet no predictive analytics, no regression models regardless of their sophistication, will create a compelling, shared idea of what could be—a vision that harnesses the imagination, that inspires sustained effort and human flourishing.

The temptation that I’ve noticed, and that Frank pointed out too, is that some organizations (like the Navy) tend to privilege analysis at the expense of imagination. This leads to a creative vision for the future that, at its best, is underdeveloped; at its worst, it’s uninspiring, doesn’t rise above the normal priorities and organizational chatter, or is nonexistent. 

Poetry doesn’t set out to solve a specific problem. 

Poetry doesn’t start out with the end in mind. 

Poetry doesn’t provide a list of what to do next. 

Poetry harnesses the power of language, metaphor and imagination to uncover truth and ignite creativity. 

And so, in an age in which we’re all grappling with the use and implications of sophisticated statistical techniques and elegant analysis of big (and small) data in our organizations, I think it’s important to keep in mind the poetry of organizational change. Our conversations, our stories and our aspirations are critical components in leading any group or organization. 

Because if we work only in the land of rational, systematic analysis, we’ll never inspire or create truly novel innovation and change. 

We must learn to work not only in the land of diagnosis but also, as Frank put it, in the “land of poets.”

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.