Best of The Month – Crisis & Renewal
Editor | On 13, Nov 2019
As it becomes more and more difficult to find new business books to recommend to ezine readers, we’re forced to make more and more forays into the past to look for lost classics. That search, too, becomes less and less easy, suffering as it does from a massive law of diminishing returns. Which, after nearly two decades of looking, feels a bit like panning for gold in the Dead Sea. Anyway, I’m pleased to say that occasionally the team still manages to pick up something that makes you think, ‘how did we possibly miss that?’ Welcome to 1995’s ‘Crisis And Renewal’.
In this age of tectonic changes in business – the growing dominance of the information economy, the excesses of the ’80s, the downsizings and corporate consolidation in the aftermath of deep recession in the 90s and dotcom boom, and then the GFC in the noughties – there has been a lot of talk about corporate America’s search for renewal. How to restore meaning to work and how to make sense of our lives, much of which we spend at work, are the big questions as we hurtle towards the third decade of the 21st century.
In that context, David K. Hurst’s book, Crisis & Renewal, seems more relevant today than it did in the relative calm of the mid-1990s. In understanding intangibles, complex systems and the importance of metaphor, it feels like it must’ve been massively ahead of its time back in 1995. I think it will help all thoughtful working people make sense of the changes that are happening, or will happen, in our companies. It is about the need for renewal—the restoration of something of value, something important that has either been lost or forgotten as both people and organizations grow and prosper. It is about getting back to the excitement and emotional commitment that is present at the start of a company’s life, or for that matter, the beginning of a person’s career. And, above all, it is about the vital role of crisis in enabling change.
The problem, says Hurst, is that organizations become constrained by their success and must be renewed – like a forest that must burn to allow new growth. Falling into a rut – the rut of doing what works is ironically a recipe for disaster. And so, Hurst urges managers not to wait for a crisis to happen, but to create it themselves.
Hurst’s book is the product of a crisis – a hostile take-over-that occurred in the company for which he worked as a senior manager in the early 1980s and his subsequent failure to find anything in his graduate management education that could help him make sense of what he and the rest of the management team did, seemingly by instinct and without a rational plan, to pull the company out of it.
Crisis & Renewal is not about reengineering. Rather, Hurst describes how managers can
perform deliberate acts of “ethical anarchy” – create crises and then become a part of the situation they have created – in order to take their organizations back to the enthusiasm and values that were present at their firms’ founding (picture the fanaticism and devotion of the champion runners who started Nike). Often these acts are not rational in the traditional sense. That is, managers need not have a clear plan of where they are going. Instead, after having set the crisis in motion, they must reconnect the organization to its past by having the founding values themselves (“walk the talk”) every day, in everything they do, and create contexts for shared learning, communication, egalitarianism, and mutual dependence.
Hurst is a wonderful storyteller and master of the analogy. He uses stories of the Kalahari bushmen and the Quakers as well as from Nike, 3M, Compaq, GE, and his own experience both to show how organizations evolve and because he believes stories and legends from an organization’s past carry in them the values that hold it together in time of crisis.
In theory, this is the perfect time for enterprises to be innovating. And yet, somehow, we see less and less evidence of it actually happening. What we see instead are lots of large organisations doing all they can to protect what they have (including acquiring small enterprises to keep their potentially disruptive offerings off the market – not helped by the increasing willingness of said small enterprises to take the money and go retire to a beach on a tropical island). When the crisis comes, these big organisations will have no option but to get off their backsides and do something. The longer it takes for the crisis to arrive, the fatter and lazier they become and hence the less able to survive they also become. In this context, Hurst’s 1995 advice seems even more prescient – avoid the devastation of the big crisis by creating your own small ones. Chaos, as can be seen in Cynefin and our own Complexity Landscape Model, is an essential part of the innovation story, the biggest blessing-in-disguise that any organization can tap in to. Crisis & Renewal was and still is as close as the world has come to a recipe book for guiding organisations through crisis and towards breakthrough success.