Collective fiction or the challenge of transformation
Why is an organization so difficult to transform?
The issue continues to challenge the top management of many of our large companies. In large part, the difficulty arises from the fact that what makes the specificity of an organization, the fact of being a artifact (artificial object) social, is not recognized. Seeing the organization in this light, rather than as a machine or as a node of contracts, nevertheless opens up an interesting avenue and provides the missing key to transformation.
An organization is a social artifact. Kesako? An artifact is an artificial creation, something that does not exist in the state of nature. As Herbert Simon observed in his book The sciences of the artificial, most of what we have around us and what surrounds us is artificial. Even a plowed field is something artificial, created by Man.
Humans aren’t the only ones who build artifacts. Not to mention the well-known bee, we can quote this bird from South Africa which builds sophisticated nests allowing hundreds of birds to stay warm at night. Her name? the social republican! You can not make that up.
But what is really specific to humans is the artefact social: it is an abstract construction which only exists through the beliefs of those who adhere to it. An organization is a typical example of a social artefact. Here again, animals are also able to organize themselves to function collectively: this can be done in a relatively simple way, and operate on a very large scale, as with ants or bees, or in a more complex way but operate on a smaller scale. scale, as with monkeys or elephants. But the human being is the only one who can create sophisticated societies on a very large scale.
This is what Yuval Noah Harari explains in his remarkable book Sapiens adding that this ability explains the domination by Man of the animal world. Against a mammoth, a man has no chance. But against ten men who know how to organize themselves for the hunt, it is the mammoth that no longer has a chance. And ten mammoths against ten men won’t stand a chance either, for ten mammoths remain ten individuals, while ten men form a coordinated, unbeatable group. And if ten men are not enough, the next time around, a hundred men, or even a thousand if necessary, will come and will be organized. And we’ll call it an army.
The question Harari then asks is: What is it that allows man to create and operate complex groups? His answer is fascinating: it is the ability to create collective fiction (which he also calls myth). He adds: “To establish complex organizations, it is necessary to convince foreigners to cooperate with each other. This will only happen if these outsiders believe in shared myths. “
According to the Larousse, a myth is a set of beliefs, idealized representations around a character, a phenomenon, a historical event, a technique and which give them a particular force and importance.
Organization is the most complete form of collective myth. It is sometimes idealized around its founder; historical events such as successes, failures, catastrophes; and a technique, such as the automobile and assembly line of Ford. In particular, the myth of a particular company is based on a mental model of reality which is reflected in particular by its business model, i.e. a value proposition, a profit model, as well as a set of resources, processes and values. All this reflects the way in which the company represents the way of interacting with its environment, which is accepted by all the stakeholders involved.
Our reality, unlike animals, is therefore essentially a reality of artefacts, and in particular of social artefacts.
How do you get a very large number of people to believe in shared myths? In the economic sphere, it is the result of the action of entrepreneurs. We find this idea in the 5th principle of implementation, the logic of entrepreneurs, entitled “the pilot in the plane”. By saying that the entrepreneur is a pilot on the plane, effectuation means that he does not passively wait for events to occur. He does not subscribe to the dominant beliefs. He does not see the environment as it is, but as it could be, or more precisely, as he would like it to be. To a dominant myth, he opposes an alternative myth that he gradually builds up and endeavors to make real in front of an active transformer of his environment. And this transformation is done by the creation of social artefacts: products, markets and of course organizations. Elon Musk’s action in space is typical of this creation of an alternative myth.
An organization is therefore an extremely sophisticated object. It is much more than a sum of contracts, themselves good examples of social artifacts. It is a complex fiction in which a large number of stakeholders believe, and this belief is the condition for its functioning and sustainability.
This is also why it is difficult to transform. Harari notes indeed that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.
Just as the entrepreneur “disrupts” an existing industry by imagining a collective myth alternative to the dominant myth of industry, so the transformation of an organization involves the creation of an alternative myth to the myth of historical activity. And just as the entrepreneur comes up against the strength of the existing industry, so the creation of an alternative myth within an organization is not without difficulty because a conflict will necessarily arise between the old and the new myth. Think of Kodak and its difficulty in bringing out the myth of a photograph without film within a company that makes a living from making films.
The difficulty of the transformation therefore lies mainly in this conflict and its resolution is difficult. But one thing is certain: the starting point of any transformation is the identification and characterization of the current myth, that is to say the awareness of organizational identity and its mental model, which are in a way the entry points into the system.
Philippe Silberzahn is professor of entrepreneurship, strategy and innovation at EMLYON Business School and associate researcher at thePolytechnic School (CRG), where he received his doctorate. His work focuses on how organizations manage situations of radical uncertainty and complexity, from an entrepreneurial perspective with the study of the creation of new markets and new products, and from a managerial perspective with the study management of disruptions, strategic surprises (black swans) and complex problems (“wicked problems”) by large organizations.