Management Aerodynamics

Why transformed organisations often don't stay that way

Graham Hayward

This article discusses the propensity for organisational transformations to be temporary, and links this to the concept of aerodynamic stability - bringing examples from aerodynamics which may give insights in application to the behaviours of organisations.

Keywords: Organisations, transformation, change, stability, inertia, management.

Management Aerodynamics

Some can, most can’t

In any discussion about ‘transforming’ organisations, people soon begin to reflect on their personal stories about great teams or organisations they have known and it seems to me, they often observe, with a good deal of sadness, that even when they have seen a successful change, it did not last.

For many, transformations seem to be temporary. Why is it that an organisation that puts in huge efforts at great cost to transform itself, seems unable to sustain that change in the long term?

Backing up these anecdotal experiences, in their article, Demystifying Change Management, (Gilbert, 2013) Deloitte quote a 60 to 70% failure rate for organisational change projects.  Their conclusions may have much to say about the need for clear leadership, planning and communication, (hardly revelatory to most) although they do mention the concept of homeostasis, which they define as, “the normal tendency for an organisation or system to resist a change”. Other authors have discussed the similar concept of structural inertia and identified this as a key constraint in transformation (Hannan, 1984).

Bureaucracy is designed to be stable (in spite of people)

It has long been recognised that an organisation has a life of its own, independent of its people. The Oxford Dictionary of Business and Management (Law, 2009) puts it like this:

"Bureaucratic hierarchy is characterised by its permanence and stability, its body of experience and precedent, and its absence of reliance on individuals”.

However, whilst these observations may go a long way to explaining why it is so mind-bendingly tough to get an organisation to change in the first place, they don't have much to say about why organisations, once changed, will slip back so quickly.  Surely if it was so hard to make the change in the first place, inertia would make it just as tough to change back.

One thing that is not helping our understanding here is our modern aversion to the term ‘bureaucracy’, where its usage is almost exclusively pejorative.  Used in its proper sense (as introduced above) most will agree that there are benefits to be gained for having permanence and stability in an organisation that does not rely on individuals.  This may be why most recent thought on the subject seems to have much to say about people, culture and communication and little about the non-human factors that these authors have called inertia or homeostasis.

… and it’s working

In a lengthy article entitled “Why does organisational change usually fail?” (Lipman, 2016) Forbes magazine concludes that changes usually flounder on the shoals of broken or inadequate communication and devotes no time to considering the innate stability of organisations themselves.

Surely it can’t be as easy to fix as this suggests.  We simply talk more and everything will work out.  However, given that it is people that lead organisations and develop their culture and that the non-human bureaucratic factors don't fit well in our modern people-centred world view, it’s very easy to adopt this approach and see the success or failure of transformations as purely down to the people involved and their culture, and the necessarily temporary nature of any management team.

CEOs and managers do come and go and take their management ethos with them. Maybe it’s inevitable that transformations have a ‘sell-by’ date that largely expires once their architects depart. This doesn't quite cut it though, because we know about organisations that have been transformed and have somehow been able to ‘stick with it’ in the long run.  So why is it that some can and others (arguably the majority) just can’t sustain a transformation?

‘Hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences

As someone with an interest in aviation, I have always seen clear parallels between management and some concepts in aerodynamics.  This came to mind when I was considering how some organisations seem to cope with the odd bit of turbulence, whilst others are knocked off course and damaged by an external headwind.

Aberdeenshire from 10,000 feet Feb 2017 - @ghayward

It has to be said that aviation starts off with a big advantage here. The laws of gravity are quite strict, and pretty much black and white. If it goes up, it’s going to come back down, and all our efforts and technology can do is delay that for a while.  There is a story about a flying instructor whose nervous, first time pupil asked him about the airfield’s record in relation to trainees.  “We have a perfect record, Sir.  We’ve never left anyone up there yet.”  Hardly reassuring but factually correct, it has to be said.

Aerodynamic theory is similarly unequivocal.  It is not a science with shades of opinion or nuances of outcome.  If it goes up, it will come back down and everything else is pretty much detail.

In contrast, management and economic theory are very woolly.  Economics (which has greatly influenced management thinking) has famously been called ‘the dismal science’ and it is pretty depressing if all we have to help us understand how organisations work are some theories and opinions, with no sign of a definitive formula or equation anywhere in sight.

Does this mean that all we can do is watch as organisations undergo change without any idea why some will stay changed and some will not?  If so that does indeed sound very dismal.

An analogy from aviation

However, luckily for us there are some proven models in aerodynamics that deal with how a body or airframe behaves in an airflow and why some will remain stable (i.e. will not deviate from their course), and others will be unstable (i.e. they will readily change course). As a starting point to try and understand how organisations behave, this may not be a bad one.

No pilot would expect a training aircraft like the Cessna 152 to achieve lightning fast changes of direction. 

They know that if they take their hands off the controls it will tend to return to straight and level flight, since that is how it was designed.  

We should therefore not be at all surprised that, in the same way, no matter how much effort and time has been put into achieving a change of direction, a similarly stable organisation will be slow to respond and will naturally return to its previous course, unless it continues to be constantly steered in the new direction. 

Cessna 152, Aero Club do Algarve, Pedro Aragão

Thinking about an organisation like an airframe, as a design that is subject to external forces, could be interesting and illuminating.  

Will it be stable, shrugging off external upsets or turbulence, but difficult to point in a new direction?   Or will it be more agile but more difficult to control and more prone to being knocked off course by external forces?

Perhaps if we could take some of these aeronautical concepts and apply them to organisations and teams, it could give us some insight into why some organisations and teams are able to sustain a transformation, and why many others can’t.

Three types of stability - aerodynamic and organisational

At its simplest, there are three types of stability identified in aerodynamics which could give us some parallels for organisations: positive, neutral and negative.

Positive Stability

An airframe that is positively stable has been designed to return to its original course if disturbed.  In other words, if you take your hands off the controls, it should return to straight and level flight. That sounds good with an obvious safety benefit, highly desirable in training aircraft.  But it also means it’s quite an effort to deviate from its given course: not so good for rapid changes in direction.  This is why basic training machines don't make for good acrobatic or combat aircraft.

An organisation which is designed to be Positively Stable would be one which happily spends its time producing products or providing services.  Its focus is on the supply side rather than on the demand side of the business. They tend to have processes for everything, even complaints.  They do what they do as well as they can. Words such as ‘weighty’ and ‘rigid’ are good descriptive words for this type of enterprise.

This is fine until they experience change in the demands of their customers, or if legislation changes, or if their market drops in value.  Then reacting to these headwinds takes a great deal of effort. Upper management try to steer round these obstacles, but it is hard going.  If that fails they have to start redesigning the organisation. This may include closing departments, laying off staff, out-sourcing functions, restructuring the management layers. All these are painful and damaging to the spirit of the firm.

Neutral Stability:

A neutrally stable airframe changes course readily as a result of deliberate control inputs or external upsets and once adjusted, it will continue on its new course. This is a good compromise perhaps but as with all compromises, it’s just that.  If disturbed by external forces it will not resume the original attitude, so that safety benefit is lost and it is still not as agile as a negatively stable airframe, which will always out-manoeuvre it.

A neutrally stable organisation is one where past CEOs have already slimmed down management and made the processes as efficient as possible. There is a degree of over-capacity that allows them to cope with unforeseen external challenges. They are still dependent on external forces to initiate internal improvements. They still have plenty of processes, largely undocumented, and a structure, which attempts to achieve quality through control and inspection. This type of enterprise is lighter on its feet, but still hierarchical in its thinking.

Negative Stability:

Negatively stable airframes will not continue to fly in any specific direction without constant inputs and course corrections.  Any external upset, unless very quickly dealt with, will result in total loss of control.  In practice these types of super agile airframes were impractical until the advent of computer control and are still largely reserved for the military.

Now this is a very interesting proposition. A negatively stable organisation is one that is naturally sensitive to the outside world. For control purposes one would say over-sensitive and dangerous for long-term survival. The pilot of a fighter jet survives flying the plane because the jet itself has inbuilt intelligence; sensors linked to computers maintain basic stability, leaving the pilot free to make strategic decisions.

Translating this to an organisation would mean exploiting the distributed intelligence of the workforce. If this were possible, then we would have an enterprise that is designed to handle external change and provide upper management with a stable platform on which to make long-term strategic decisions.

So what might this tell us about our organisation?

Our organisations exist in a world of change. It is not a matter of resisting the change; rather we must have organisations that are designed to adapt themselves to the change.

Organisations with a long heritage and mature processes are likely to be positively stable. They will pretty much work to keep you on the “straight and level”.  External forces will disturb them but they will tend to return to their previous course. This may sound like the safest option but ignoring external factors is not a survivable long term strategy.  If this sounds like your organisation then clearly its lack of agility is a major source of concern.

Newer and smaller organisations will tend to be more agile.  Even with their hierarchical control structures they could exhibit neutral stability, which may seem to offer a reasonable compromise. I would suggest that change will still seem onerous, as upper management’s response will always be lagging behind the initiating external events.

If your organisation wants to achieve negative stability, then major design changes are required. A new approach to management will have to be adopted, where decision-making is pushed out to the edges.  But rewards will be substantial as the system takes on the properties of an intelligent system. It will inherently respond quickly and efficiently to external forces and without the angst of being forced to re-structure the organisation every time.  They will be able to out-manoeuvre all those positively or  neutrally  stable

organisations, but the spectre of instability will always be there.

The challenge of purposeful organisation design

A lot of our thinking has (probably rightly) been about people and how they influence and change culture.

However, as people come and go, how can the organisation (hopefully) continue on its changing course? If we conclude that the effects we are seeing are entirely the result of the people that make up the organisation, it leads to the somewhat depressing conclusion that there’s really nothing much to be done. Once the individuals who transform an organisation leave, then the transformation is pretty much bound to die.

Maybe it’s time for us to stop thinking exclusively in terms of the influence people and their culture and consider the influence of the underlying design.

So, is your organisation positively stable, in fact, so stable that it is constantly fighting you and trying to return to its old direction?  Or perhaps you have plans to ‘engineer’ the stability out of your organisation and make it ‘lean‘ and packed with distributed intelligence to the extent that it is inherently agile.

About the author

Graham is an experienced executive and entrepreneur having held senior positions with multi-national organisations. With an interest in organisational development and systems thinking, he is a director of the Deming Learning Network and a pilot with both power and glider (sailplane) ratings.

He can be contacted via LinkedIn: Graham Hawyard


This article was adapted from an earlier version on LinkedIn Pulse, first published Sept 2016. 

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