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ORGANIZATIONAL DYNAMICS AND SUCCESS – THE TETRAHEDRON PRINCIPLE
Daniel E. Gunter, Founder, Affinity Leadership Concepts
The rapid pace of change confronting leadership in businesses and organizations today represents no less than an all-out revolution. Many of them are so consumed by the need to “keep up” with technological advances that they have little or no time left to seriously contemplate the implications of such technology. Neglect has likewise fallen upon the study and advancement of management techniques. This has resulted in the attempted utilization of obsolete management theories in solving problems that were not imaginable only a few short years ago. New, more effective approaches to the issue of management must focus less on specific techniques and more on general, universal ideas. My approach to this is built upon the framework of the tetrahedron, a simple geometric figure that is as powerful and intriguing as it is simplistic.
Management philosophy of the past was not perfect, but it was usually sufficient for most leaders and organizations to “get by on.” Following World War II, we naively assumed that the tremendous success had by companies in America was largely due to “good management.” As it turns out, that success was chiefly fueled by pent-up demand on the part of consumers. The war years were a period of time when Americans had to do without many luxuries and pleasures. When the war ended, Americans were ready for something – anything – explicitly or implicitly symbolic of living “the American dream.” U.S. auto makers, for instance, began producing bulky automobiles without serious regard for quality, economical value, or foresight of what was to come. Foreign auto makers, especially in Germany and Japan, turned their attention more toward building cars that lasted, were less expensive to maintain and operate, and geared-up to capitalize on the upcoming shift in buying trends. Within a few years, the U.S. auto industry would be forced to play catch-up. This unanticipated battle over market share left scars that are still noticeable to this day, as G.M., Ford and Chrysler still struggle to regain market share from formidable opponents like Toyota, Nissan, and many others. The major lesson which should have been learned: it pays to listen continuously to people’s wants, needs, and tastes. People won’t continue to buy a product that is inferior. They might flock to it at first as a consequence of sheer novelty, but brand loyalty in America is fading fast. Where it does exist, it is fragile at best.
The idea that Americans are a “fickle” lot is pure myth. Shifts in American tastes, desires, and choices are easy to understand. Like the physics phenomenon of “quantum leaps,” it is easy to say that such shifts will occur. The problem is predicting when they will occur and where they will land. The same issues that apply to consumer trends also apply to organizational and management issues, but years of complacency, followed by years of neglect and stubbornness have resulted in models of management that are difficult to tear down and replace. And the larger the organization, the harder the task becomes. Organizational infrastructures, some which were created decades ago, tend to be self-defending. They are not self-supporting. If anything, they are self-destructive. Ironically, a lot of people will invest much greater energy trying to shore-up crumbling corporate ladders than would be required to abandon them and rebuild on firmer soil. Metaphorically speaking, “change” is a word that elicits a fight-or-flight response from the vast majority of higher-ups in America. At least the majority of those that are middle-aged or older.
The recent purchase of Time-Warner by America Online (AOL) is a good example of this. On November 17th, Steve Case, CEO of AOL sat on the same studio set with Ted Turner, Co-Chairman of Time-Warner. They were both participating in a broadcast on the topic of leadership. Less than two months later, Americans would be shocked to hear the news of the AOL purchase of Time-Warner. But not younger Americans. The Internet-embracing, younger generation of Americans showed much less surprise over the news than did their seniors. Why? A virtual management “generation gap.” Instead of deeply entrenched notions of “The way things were,” the younger generation has more of a sense of “The way things could be.” George Bernard Shaw once said “Some men see the way things are and ask ‘why?’ I dream dreams that never were and ask ‘why not?’” [emphasis added.] Corporate America is involved in its own civil war – essentially between the “whys” and the “why nots.” And the battle line between the warriors, be they executives or entire corporations, is just as much a dividing line between age as it is philosophy. This is not to say that there is no crossing of the age/philosophical chasm: there are certainly many progressive business leaders, middle-aged and beyond, and they are most likely looking dismayed at the number of recently-graduated MBA’s who have been taught business practices that were proven obsolete many years ago and many times over. Unfortunately, the former are still do not represent the majority in our society. In the words of noted business author Tom Peters, “It’s time we changed business titles, converting the CEO (Chief Executive Officer) to the CDO (Chief Destruction Officer.)”
Just this morning, my wife and I were watching television with the youngest of our two daughters, who is eight years old. While watching a show which featured the demolition of the old Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, the child asked “Why don’t they just fix it instead of tearing it down?” (Could the child be a reincarnation of Henry Ford?) I tried to come up with a quick answer to her inquiry, but I don’t think I did too well, as my leadership-focused mind suddenly felt the urge to jump on my soap box and attempt to entertain her and my wife with a lengthy oration about “abandonment” being the optimal starting point for “reinvention.” But the newness of such dissertations coming from myself has long worn off with my wife, and the daughter is at the stage where the commercials make more sense to her than the television programs themselves, which is bad news for me because I still haven’t come up with an attention-getting jingle to accompany my lectures.
Despite the sadistic sense of self-gratification I sometimes get from watching an obsolete corporation self-destruct, I am not a proponent of anarchy. There is a tremendous difference between total chaos and an organization intentionally “imploding” in order to rebuild itself. Lack of direction results in chaos; whereas, successful restructuring takes place in the presence of a strong sense of vision. No doubt there is a lot of experimentation involved in a great turn-around, but the builders must have their eyes firmly fixed on some destination. World-class turn-around agents are focused more on service and product capabilities and innovations than they are hierarchies and organization charts. To avoid total chaos, there needs to be at least a set of minimal specifications for the new corporate design. If nothing else, the blueprint needs to include a foundation strong enough to support the organization in turbulent situations. So there exists a need for a framework complex enough to account for the basic forces at work in all organizations, yet simple enough that is flexible and can weather all sorts of cultural storms. After seventeen years of study and work, I found a model that meets that need and those minimal specifications: The Tetrahedron. In my book “The Tetrahedron Principle” I provide great detail on the events that led to my discovery of the four primary forces that affect organizations and the tetrahedron as a model for organizational dynamics. But for this article, I will begin at the point where the four forces and the tetrahedron came together as a model.
The four primary forces at work in all organizations are: culture, communication, creativity, and conflict. Although each is a distinct force within itself, they are so interwoven and interrelated that you can not consider or address one while disregarding the other three. The structure of a tetrahedron lends itself with tremendous grace and beauty to the depiction of these four forces.
By placing one of the four forces at each of the points which defines the tetrahedron, the interconnections are clearly displayed. Remove one force or point, and the tetrahedron collapses to a two-dimensional structure -- a triangle. Two-dimensional structures can not contain three-dimensional objects, which organizations actually are. This succinctly explains why organization charts, which have traditionally been two-dimensional, fail so miserably to live up to our expectations. To depict the structure (assuming it to be possible) of an organization would require a three-dimensional figure. The sheer number of interactions and interrelationships within any organization rapidly exceeds the ability of a two-dimensional diagram to depict them with any clarity or usefulness. The tetrahedron is the simplest three-dimensional structure which can contain a three-dimensional figure. While any other point defined, three-dimensional, geometric form could do likewise, the tetrahedron is unique in one trait: placing a three-dimensional shape inside the tetrahedron while interconnecting all defining points of the tetrahedron with all the other defining points yields connecting lines which can all be viewed in their entirety.
* The Tetrahedron Principle
To draw all interconnections between the defining points in other polyhedrons would result in one or more lines running through the object contained inside. This might sound like an insignificant problem, but for purposes of my model, The Tetrahedron Principle, it would be.
Organizations are initially formed around a mission and vision. In my model, I place this at the center of the tetrahedron. Ideally, a person is drawn into an organization by the attraction of that mission and vision. Hence, they gravitate toward the center of the tetrahedron – at least initially. Over time, owing to their own energy, needs, and occasional misalignment with the mission and vision, this person will drift at varying distances from the center. As they move farther from the center, they become more susceptible to the effects of the four primary forces defining the tetrahedron. Whether they are affected mostly by one of these forces or a combination of them determines where they are within the space of the tetrahedron at any finite point in time. They do not remain at that point, however. The innate energy the person possesses dictates that they must remain in motion – the alternative is death, figuratively, if not literally. Thus they are constantly moving. Viewing all the people in an organization simultaneously, it would appear more like a blob, which I describe as “flubber-like,” since the mass would constantly be changing shape. Using the tetrahedron to frame the four primary forces yields further insights about the phenomena which organizations can experience.
Suppose all the people in the organization were to become too focused on the mission and vision? If they do so to the extent that choose organizational concerns, traditions, policies, and procedures over being adaptable to people’s needs and concerns, the mission and vision would become a “black hole,” into which all energy and resources would be drawn. This would yield no useful outcome. Another way a black hole can develop and destroy an organization is for the organization to focus too heavily on one of the primary forces. Either way, the organization will die. But this is not the only celestial phenomenon that can take place in an organization.
If too much mass and energy (i.e., people and resources) are gathered, the organization will eventually reach “critical mass.” At that point, some of it must be cast out. This is akin to a star undergoing the phenomenon of a “nova,” casting out particles and energy in an attempt to regain equilibrium. In this case of the organization, the mission and vision are adequate to retain the people and resources necessary for survival. In many cases, the organization experiences greater functionality as a result.
If the mission and vision are not sufficient to retain the necessary people and resources, they will all be cast out. The determining factor in whether such a “supernova” occurs, marking the end of the organization, or the previously discussed nova which did not, is the strength and viability of the mission and vision. In either case, the people and resources which are expelled from the organization are eventually drawn into other organizations, just as matter and energy from one star in the universe is eventually drawn toward another.
So goes the dance of the universe. From our finite perspective, that dance appears extremely complex. Yet it is based on simple principles. To begin to comprehend it, we must occasionally seek to mentally remove ourselves from the cycle and view it as we were looking from a distance, able to see the greater picture.
In order to reinvent and revitalize organizations, we must start with a framework that meets both the simple and complex needs at hand. The Tetrahedron Principle offers such a framework. While this article does not venture into individual discussions covering each of the four forces alluded to, it is easy to imagine numerous implications of each; moreover, those forces can combine in infinite combinations and degrees. Another issue not discussed, but easy to comprehend, is the duality of each of the forces: the forces which can spell disaster for an organization are the same forces which make it possible for an organization to excel. The Tetrahedron Principle is a simple yet powerful tool for exploring these ideas. It is not an organizational chart. Nor is it a proposed “shape” for organizations themselves. Furthermore, I do not claim it to be an answer in itself to the problems leaders face in their organizations. Instead, it is a framework which is simple enough to be universally applicable to every organization, while having an uncanny ability to explain complex issues with those organizations.
Information about the author:
Dan Gunter is Owner and Founder of Affinity Leadership Concepts, a leadership and management consulting firm which he operates out of Woodland, Alabama, which is near Atlanta and Birmingham. He started A.L.C. when he realized that he could provide leaders with an approach comprehensive enough to produce workable results, yet simple enough that a PhD in astrophysics was not necessary to comprehend it. A dynamic speaker, he loves doing keynote speeches, seminars, and lectures on his theories. He is currently exploring the possibility of creating statistical assessment tools which will provide “diagnostic glimpses” of where an organizations or an individual is predominantly oriented within the “space” of his Tetrahedron model.
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