Perturbation, Paradox and the Welcome Back Picnic

Balance is a wonderful thing. We want it in our lives and in our school curriculum. But sometimes we need just a little disequilibrium to move forward. Take for example the PDS picnic – traditionally held on the first Friday and close to the Gilkeson playground. With that area fenced off for construction we had to come up with another location and means of cooking the barbecue.

Most people I spoke with on Friday thought the new venue was a big improvement. The trees provided welcome shade, and the soccer field and outdoor play area provided an open yet contained and observable space for games and play.

I was musing on this rather minor example of the change process when I came across:
Wellsprings of creation: Perturbation and the Paradox of the Highly Disciplined Organization – a working paper published just last week in the Harvard Business Review

It’s about the tension between streamlined efficiency and the adaptability needed to stay alert to innovation and possibility. The Abstract reads :

Organizations face simultaneous imperatives to exploit and explore. Paradoxically, exploitation tends to drive out exploration, rendering organizations rigid and vulnerable to environmental change. Drawing on the Carnegie School, we propose a model where perturbation moderates the relationship between exploitation and exploration. We posit that highly disciplined organizations can sustain virtuous cycles of exploitation and exploration by deliberately perturbing their own processes. We provide illustrations from Toyota and formulate testable hypotheses about the mechanisms of perturbation.

The theory hinges on the mutually exclusive concepts of exploitation and exploration. Exploitation is the use of already known and understood institutional routines and responses. Such routines are essential in any organization and are strongly at work in any well-disciplined one enabling efficiency in time and resources. However, such discipline and control stifles the application of new thinking that comes when the system is in disequilibrium and perturbation has upset the balance. That perturbation leads to exploration of fresh solutions which then become the new routines. This is described in this “virtuous cycle” based on the chart in the paper.
And the picnic? We haven’t made the decision for next year. Perhaps we can enter the “virtuous cycle” of exploitation and exploration and enjoy the ease of a disciplined routine in some areas for a while at least.

And as for perturbation – some organizations deliberately build in perturbation in order to keep the process of innovation, problem solving and creation alive. I think we have a good measure of challenges to keep us on our exploration, innovation and change toes.

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