FieldNotes: When organisational survival isn’t sustainable
by Marguerite Coetzee. Too often we treat a complex problem as complicated and lose sight of possible solutions or desired outcomes. Zwelihle’s unrest is just one example of how a complex problem can be overcomplicated and threaten the sustainability of a system or organisation.
When presented with a problem, we can place it in one of four categories:
- Simple: something that is easy to understand or decode, like a cake recipe
- Complicated: something that is difficult to understand and requires specialised knowledge, like putting together a car engine
- Complex: something that has multiple parts that interact to create different outcomes, like a family or organisation, or
- Chaotic: something that has unpredictable outcomes or only makes sense in hindsight, like a black hole or the situation in Venezuela).
Zwelihle — the name translates to “beautiful place” because of its prime location between sea and mountain — is a township situated between Hermanus and Sandbaai, Western Cape. Most of its residents have disproportionately less income compared to their more-affluent neighbouring towns. What started out as a small and peaceful march to the mayor’s office around a year ago (News24 reported this in December 2018, but residents say there were peaceful marches prior to that), with the intention of raising concerns over housing and service delivery, was met with delayed and unsatisfactory responses from local government and leadership. Since then, it has evolved into a series of protests involving multiple participants and concerns. The matter has escalated into something far beyond its origins.
We find ourselves in a time of rapid change. Complex contexts produce complex problems that require adaptable solutions. A community, organisation, family, and country are all complex systems with multiple moving parts that interact with one another and create different results. If an organisation remains unchanged, it would be vulnerable to surprises. The key is to transform with the times, foster an environment of learning and creativity, engage critically with participants in the system or organisation, and continuously reflect on where the organisation is and where it needs to be.
Lessons from a complex township
Lesson 1: Socialise strategically
An issue within Hermanus and Zwelihle is that there is a strong focus on difference rather than similarity, destruction rather than creation, and continuation rather than transformation. The time and place have changed but the narratives, relationships, power-relations, and logic stay the same.
Hermanus and Zwelihle are largely stuck in a cyclical pattern that regenerates the past, rather than moving forward toward a different future. This is the same for organisations which have an internal us-vs-them behaviour that creates social exclusion or outcasts in the workplace, organisations which place levels of employment on a hierarchy and separate task teams to construct boundaries between colleagues, and organisations which prefer ‘business as usual’ and defend the way things have always been done, rather than being disruptive, transformative, and progressive.
“The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” —John Maynard Keynes, economist.
Lesson 2: Promote participation
The unrest in Zwelihle has revealed a gap in leadership and mistrust in government. Protest and police intervention have highlighted the powerplays between leadership and residents, and it has encouraged resistance to authority. What’s needed here is a shared sense of purpose, a goal of a sustainable future for all involved, incorporating diversity, and a reframing of narratives to be more inclusive, to be motivated by an ideal future, and to incorporate multiple perspectives in developing the solution.
Organisations that experience fading corporate culture, disconnect between colleagues, or a lack of faith in management, should consider revisiting their mission and reformulating their vision. There needs to be a plan of co-operation, coherence and positive competition put into place.
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” —William Gibson, writer.
Lesson 3: Diversify sustainably
Hermanus has traditionally been financially viable for three main reasons: tourism, small business and access to labour from neighbouring areas. Owing to the protests, holiday-goers are at times prevented from entering Hermanus and surrounds, warding off tourism and the potential income that comes with it. During protests, employees residing in Zwelihle are prevented from going to work, and this negatively impacts their own finances, the businesses they work for, and the town’s overall viability.
It is vital – for an organisation’s survival and sustainability – to diversity its offers and income streams, and to prepare for those unexpected surprises in its ever-changing environment. One way of being prepared for the unexpected is to first understand what is happening or changing in the organisation’s immediate and broader contexts by paying attention to news and narratives being circulated. The second step is to map these changes in terms of trends, quantitative patterns, and anticipated outcomes or scenarios. Finally, the best way to anticipate the future is to create it; influence the desired outcome by developing a plan, vision, and actions needed to make it a reality.
“The best way to predict the future is to invest it.” —Alan Kay, computer scientist.
Marguerite Coetzee is an anthropologist, artist and futurist who provides research and insight services through Omniology. FieldNotes, the latest series in her regular column on MarkLives, captures experiences from the field, shares the cultural lessons learned, and advises on qualitative tools, methodologies and frameworks when exploring the world of the consumer.