Business as usual. Until it’s not.

Earlier this week I wrote a post about change being harder than most of us think. I’m hoping to expand a bit on that notion, and provide some thoughts around why big systems change (or don’t change).

First, it never ceases to amaze me that people still think that “change from within” a highly structured and bureaucratic environment is possible. It’s extremely rare, if not impossible (but if someone has a really good example I’d love to hear about it). The fact of the matter is that history shows us example after example of big systems, be they natural, political or economic, changing due to disruption and disturbance…not because they want to.

I’m going to take a quick detour into metaphorville and ask that you picture yourself in an old-growth forest. Here’s a picture to help.

Notice how shady it is. Notice how big the trees are. Notice the rather barren undergrowth. In this system, the vast majority (if not all) of the resources are going into the maintenance of this large and stable ecosystem. There is no potential for change. The space and resources simply don’t exist. There is no patch of sun. It will only be through a disturbance that resources will be freed from the old-growth trees. Maybe a lumberjack, maybe a pest, maybe a forest fire. No disturbance? No change.

Which brings us to thinking about the recent events in the Alberta Legislature. People are (and aren’t, simultaneously), surprised that it’s “business as usual” within the Progressive Conservative party. I’m not. There has been no disturbance. No metaphorical lumberjack. No forest fire. Alberta continues to enjoy tremendous population growth and a booming economy. Not exactly an indicator that there’s something amiss in the system. If anything, the trees in Alberta continue to grow and flourish, sucking up resources to maintain the status quo.

Of course, it’s not a matter of if change is coming, simply a matter of when. All big systems crash, some more mightily than others. There was a forest fire in California a few years ago that burned so hot it irrevocably changed the nature of the soil so that nothing else could grow. Why did it burn so hot? Because humans had been suppressing fires in the area for a hundred years.

And just as we like to maintain the status quo in our natural systems, so to do we try and create stability and predictability within our organizations and institutions.  The resignation (er, dismissal) of Alison Redford is the latest attempt by the PC party to snuff out the internal sparks of change before those sparks turn into full blown wildfires and burn the party down.

Of course, we know what happens when we endlessly suppress fires in the forest. Eventually a fire comes along that’s so big, so hot and so determined that we simply have to get out of its way and let it burn. So don’t be surprised if, when the PC party does start to crash and burn, you won’t be able to stop it.

And maybe, just maybe, there is a storm brewing on the horizon. The demographics of this province are shifting, especially in our major centres. Both Edmonton and Calgary have elected very progressive mayors. The recent huge majority that the PC’s enjoyed during the last election? Largely due to progressive moderates who were more afraid of the Wildrose Party than they were enthused about the PC’s.

Time to go spark some fires?

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