“Please don’t read this post!”
It seems as if there is some reader repellent that takes effect when I write about books on management and organizational behavior such as Geoffrey Vickers’ Making Institutions Work, so I might as well warn you off at the start. Fans of neglected books are rarely interested in such a dry topic and readers of management books usually couldn’t be bothered to consider anything written more than five years ago, unless it was written by Peter Drucker. So the intersection of the two is a tiny set of which I might just be the only member.
If not, cough or something. It would be nice to have some company.
But management is the stuff of my working day and I sometimes find that work and hobby cross paths. Donald Schon’s Beyond the Stable State represents one such intersection. I discovered it after reading Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness, which is devoted to a topic I spend a lot of time thinking about on my job: how to foster a community of practice within an organization.
I love the way Schon opens this book:
I have believe for as long as I can remember in an afterlife within my own life–a calm, stable state to be reached after a time of troubles. When I was a child, that afterlife was Being Grown Up. As I have grown older, its content has become more nebulous, but the image of it stubbornly persists.
In every organization and in every job I’ve ever held, this belief seems to be the bedrock of how people approach whatever change is going on or looming on the horizon: “Things are crazy right now, but eventually things will settle down and get back to normal.”
They never do, of course. And they certainly never revert back to something we were used to. Tomorrow’s change is not quite the same as yesterday’s, and it’s safe to assume that neither will next week’s or next years. Yet still we cling to this sense that things will settle down, calm down, stabilize. And we do the same thing when it comes to our own lives. At the moment, my stable state is life after the kids have all left home and finished college–but how stable (unchanging) will it actually turn out to be?
Schon takes it as a given that things will never settle down. The appropriate response to any change, in his view, is to understand it, not to fight it or even to surrender to it: “The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning”–to become capable, in other words, of making continual transformation a given rather than reacting to it as an anomaly.
Beyond the Stable State is not quite neglected–it’s in print and easily available online, if not in stores. Nor is it that easy to read–the passage above is contrasted by more than a few stretches of fuzzy prose: “The loss of the stable state carries with it continuing mismatch between specific elements and their situations, and thereby precipitates movement up the ladder of functional aggregation.” Ten bucks to the first reader who can translate that.
But Schon’s core message is so simple and yet profound: change is here, it’s pervasive, and it’s accelerating, so learn to handle it. Constant reorienting is a crucial skill, as is that of not being too afraid to make mistakes one can learn from. In a more condensed and perhaps more accessible format, this could well be an essential text that should be passed out and taught to high schoolers already forming the illusion that things will settle down once they finish college and get a job. Until someone writes that book, though, it’s necessary to roll up the sleeves and dig into Beyond the Stable State.
Beyond the Stable State, by Donald A. Schon
New York: Random House, 1971