On Tuesday morning of AYE, I attended Esther Derby’s session on organizational change.

This session’s simulation was about a factory that had decided to enter the lucrative “fancy pinwheel” market. She started out by dividing us into four groups (cutters, assemblers, testers, managers), and plunked us down in a room without a lot of information. We muddled around for a while, gradually figuring out our environment: there was some information about the customer, about the market, about suppliers that took quite some effort to piece together. (And it was quite a bit more work to make good use of that information; even at the end of the exercise, there were important pieces of information that I was unaware of and that, as far as I could tell, we weren’t using at all.) While doing this muddling, the groups changed (to some extent), and eventually we managed to produce something useful; but we neither produced as much as we could have nor reached that productive state as quickly as we could have.


  • The simulation was well-paced: everything went by a bit too fast, quickly enough that we didn’t react nearly well enough to the information (we would probably have done a lot better if we’d had twice or even half again as much time between stages), but not so quickly that we were just lost. Which felt realistic to me, though for all I know a lot of real-world change situations feel like they’re going by a lot faster! I was also impressed at how well the task of pinwheel construction served as a problem for us to work on.
  • There were (at least) three different kinds of groups in play: the pre-existing groups that we were assigned into, groups that formed out of their members’ common interests, and groups that managers tried to form. These didn’t overlap particularly well: e.g. when management decided to form an R&D group, they didn’t realize that there were already people who’d started doing that without direction!
  • I was surprised at the power of the pre-existing groups: those were created out of nothing by handing us labels (whereas in a real-world situation they would be much much stronger), yet they had a strong life throughout the exercise. I strengthened them in an effort to wrap my head around the situation, by asking people to display their group identifier in a more prominent fashion; in retrospect, I wonder if I hurt us more than I helped us by doing that?
  • People outside of groups were useful, too: just wandering around noticing stuff and seeing if information should be moved from place to place had its benefits. In fact, that probably should have happened more, and the results should have been broadcast more publicly: in times of change, it may be more useful to spread new learning than it is to work off of your old instincts. (There’s no point in running more quickly in the wrong direction.)
  • There are least two ways in which you should give extra care to information in a change situation. In general, in such circumstances, people are grasping for information, and they fill in gaps by “horribilizing”. (I.e. filling in gaps with the worst possible interpretation.) So go out of your way to not hide information: even if people don’t need to know something, that doesn’t mean you should prevent them from learning that, and you probably want to go out of your way to overcommunicate. (Side note: according to Esther, people have to hear something 30-40 times for it to sink in.)
  • But if you’re immersed in a sea of information, you’ll just stay in chaos: you need vision and guidance to get to the new status quo together. So make sure to highlight (30-40 times!) the information that helps reinforce the new vision. In this particular situation, I think there were a couple of pieces of information (scheduling for a constraint, and our best guess at the desired design) that should have been placed in a prominent location.
  • In particular, thinking in Theory of Constraints terms, we didn’t exploit the constraint effectively. This exercise gave me a much more concrete appreciation of ToC than I’d had before: I’ve been struggling to apply it at work (I’ve been thinking about this for years and I still don’t know where our constraint really is), but this exercise made that focusing step much more vivid to me.

She also passed out a lovely article about change involving her dog. I haven’t yet found a copy online, but there’s an earlier version available in this blog post.

Edit: Here’s the full article mentioned in the last paragraph.

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