11 months, 18 days ago

Notes on Stability-Diversity

Link: http://www.strategicstructures.com/?p=1441

To be healthy, organisations – like human beings – have to operate in balance. Going temporarily out of balance is OK, but if this goes on for too long, it’s dangerous. Just like riding a bike, the balance is the minimum organisations need to be able to move forward.

What kinds of things need to be balanced? There are three essential balances. The first one is between autonomy and cohesion, the second is about maintaining both stability and diversity, and the third is balancing between exploration and exploitation. The important thing to recognise here is that the nature of each balance will differ between organisations. And what needs to be done to restore balance will change over time. So we can’t be prescriptive or learn “best practice” from others. We can only give people the glasses to see what is going on and the knowledge that will help them maintain the balances in their organisations.

I’ve been doing the Essential Balances workshop for four years now. During the workshop, all three of them seem relatively easy to get, yet a bit more difficult to work with as a matter of habit.  Based on the feedback I received from people actually using these glasses for organisational diagnosis and design, the first and the third balance, Autonomy-Cohesion and Exploitation-Exploration, come more naturally, while the second one, Stability-Diversity, creates some problems. All three of them and a few more will be explained in detail in the forthcoming book “Essential Balances in Organisations”, but until then, I’ll make some clarifications here. I hope it will be of use also for people who are not familiar with this practice.

Stability and Diversity. At first glance, it might be difficult to see it as a balance. In fact, it covers four dynamics. So, it might be easier to see it as four different balances. Different, yet somehow the same. And the key to it is exactly in these two words: different and same.

The main difficulty for understanding this balance comes from the fact that the concepts of stability and diversity operate in different dimensions. Stability is sameness in time, while diversity is difference in space (Time&Space is also another pair of glasses, used within the QUTE framework). When we say that the oil price is stable, we mean that it doesn’t change much over a certain period. Same for the temperature, sea level, people behaviour. Try searching for “is stable” in the news, and you’ll get mostly three types of results: one, applying it to the condition of a person in a hospital after some accident, second, referring to the political situation somewhere, and third about currency or growth rate.

Diversity, on the other hand, is used for difference in space. Specifically, it’s applied for the difference between separate things within something uniting or containing them. We use it for restaurant offerings, for teams when their members are of different ethnicity, age, and gender. And then in ecological context, we often hear the word “biodiversity”.

The balance between stability and diversity can be observed in the dimensions that they typically operate, in the opposite, or across. Before seeing that, it should be clarified that “balance” should not be understood only in terms of moderating between extremes. That’s why it is “Stability and Diversity”, not versus, or at least not always versus. This will become clearer when same and different is applied in time and space to reveal the four-in-one balances. And we start with the simplest case, taking only sameness and only time.

When sameness is used only in time, then stability can be seen as balance in itself. It can be applied to any other balance for being kept in time. The opposite of stability is instability. Instability is referring to stability, it is about stability. A plane flight is unstable when there is turbulence. In other words, instability is applied to flight, when stability is disturbed by turbulence. And here’s an important point. We would use instability only when there is a possibility for restoring the normal operation. We won’t apply it when there is a plane crash, for example. This would be the first (out of four) hidden balance: Stability (time) – Instability (time). Or, to use the other two words, maintaining the sameness, when it is challenged by difference. Maybe a more appropriate way of writing this variation would be with stability in the middle:

instability – stability – instability

It seems that using same and different in time and space works well so far. But that’s mainly because we allowed another pair of concepts to sneak in the game: good and bad. Stable is good, unstable is bad. Now, since good and bad have been revealed, let’s play with them. Let’s try for example to see stability – why not – as bad. The new combination looks like this: Stability (in time, is bad) – Diversity (in time, is good). It could be useful to see it this way for people who are comfortable wearing Stability-Diversity glasses, but not when communicating with people who are not. With those, something like “Rut – Innovation” would work better. And indeed, when organisations do something the same way and expect better results, that is not likely to happen. Worse, when they do that thing the same way, while their environment changes, they are increasingly unable to achieve the same results. Then a more neutral way to talk about this flavour of the balance would be as Stability-Change, while the biased versions Stability-Instability and Rut-Innovation retain their utility in specific contexts.

Just as it is with the other two essential balances, the scale matters here as well. Good and bad in “Stability (time, bad) – Diversity (time, good)” should be understood only at a certain scale. The way it is written above somehow implies a scale of years.  After some innovation is implemented, the new state needs to be stabilised. Then, and probably for a shorter period, it would be “Stability (time, good) – Diversity (time, bad)”.

We tried “Stability is bad”. If we do the same with difference in time, this will bring the statement “Innovation is bad”. It may sound strange, but it is an actual strategy for some healthcare practices, as well as for companies like General Motors, Ford and American Airlines. It even has a name, exnovation.

So far, we saw Stability-Diversity in time, which can be looked at as Stability-Change, Stability-Instability, and Rut-Innovation. The first one is neutral, the second is when we want to maintain stability, and the third when stability is maintained in spite of the need for change. Now, the analogue for Diversity in space would be to look at it as a balance in itself. This balance can be better understood if called Diversity-Homogeneity. Too much diversity might be bad for stability in some cases, in others – the more the better.

The fourth dynamic is between Stability and Diversity, where stability operates in time and diversity in both space and time. This dynamic is a bit more complicated and it probably won’t get clear without examples. I’ll leave that for another post. For now, here’s a short description: having more diversity (space) or trying out different things (diversity in time) could be very important for maintaining stability (time). However, too much diversity in some cases can destabilise.

I hope this makes Stability-Diversity feel more natural. If not, here’s another way to think about it, which both syntactically and semantically looks more like a balance:

Homeostasis – Heterostasis

The word homeostasis is coming from the Greek ὅμοιος homoios, “similar” and στάσις stasis, “standing still”, to suggest the idea of “staying the same”. Hetero- comes from ἕτερος [héteros], “another”, and is often used as a prefix meaning “different”. This would give another way of thinking about Stability-Diversity as the ability to “maintain sameness” balanced with the ability to “maintain difference”.