… or Experiment, Adapt, and Learn
Richard Tanner Pascale is known as a subtle thinker who refuses to be seduced by easy models and trite explanations, preferring to take an enquiring view of the complexities of organisational challenges.
His two big contributions flow, first, from his association with the McKinsey 7S Model, and later from his championing of the concept of complex adaptive systems as a powerful metaphor for organisations.
Richard Pascale keeps much of his life private – there is little I can find of his early life, between his birth, in 1938, and his education at Harvard Business School. In the late 1970s, he and fellow academic Anthony Athos collaborated with McKinsey consultants Robert Waterman and Tom Peters in the creation of the 7S model, which later became a central component of his and Athos’ book, ‘The Art of Japanese Management’. He spent 20 years at Stanford University n their Graduate School of Business and then became an independent consultant. He is now also an Associate Fellow of Said Business School, Oxford University.
The McKinsey 7S model offered seven inner-related aspects of a business and became an important part of both Athos and Pascale’s book, and of Peters and Waterman’s: ‘In Search of Excellence’. Whilst Peters and Waterman focused on examples of US success, taking a fairly reductionist view of what it takes to succeed, Pascale and Athos focused on Japanese business and highlighted the importance of the ‘soft S factors’ rather than the ‘hard S factors’.
Soft S Factors
- Style of management
- Staffing policies
- Shared Values
Hard S Factors
In this book, he also started to identify how Japanese businesses were able to respond successfully to complex and ambiguous situations, where rational analysis was unable to create a clear solution. Instead of jumping to a final resolution of a problem, he advocated accepting the uncertainties and proceeding on the basis of an initial assessment, and then using the new information you gain as the basis of tweaking your approach. This leads to a step-wise, incremental approach, rather than a bold, decisive strategy.
Work on Agility
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) had taken an interest in why Honda had been so successful in launching a business in the US, but it was Pascale’s response in a 1984 edition of California Management Review that stimulated debate and raised awareness of Pascale’s ideas. Whilst BCG attributed their success to a long term investment strategy and gritty perseverance, Pascale saw things very differently. After interviewing Honda executives, he saw a series of failures and setbacks, followed by learning and adaptation. He perceived Honda’s approach as one of experimenting and reflecting.
Pascale adamantly rejects the western approach of oversimplifying, decrying management and strategy fads, and disassociating himself from common terms like expert or guru. Instead, he prefers a process of testing and questioning, reflecting and learning, and adapting. He has constantly returned to the theme of agility as the core competence of an organisation in a complex and changing world. He concluded:
- Agility is a key source of competitive advantage
- Organisational culture and attitude to uncertainty and change, rather than processes are what lend it agility
- Four things determine how agile an organisation will be:
- Power: the power employees have to influence events
- Identity: the extent to which individuals identify with their organisation
- Contention: how creatively is conflict managed
- Learning: how the organisation handles new experiences and ideas
In item three, the four elements can lead to stagnation, so Pascale went further, in a Harvard Business Review article (Nov-Dec 1997) called ‘Changing the way we Change’. He listed seven mental disciplines that drive agility:
- Building an intricate understanding of your business
- Encouraging uncompromising straight talk
- Managing from the future
- Harnessing setbacks
- Promoting inventive accountability
- Understanding quid pro quos
- Creating relentless discomfort with the status quo
Pascale views complexity and ambiguity as the drivers of change, and that constant change as the key to success. ‘If it ain’t broke: don’t fix it’ is a truism. Pascale would say:
‘If it ain’t broke: go break it’.
Complex Adaptive Systems
More recently, he has been thinking carefully about the science of complex adaptive systems and drawing somewhat fruitful analogies with organisations. The problem I see is that this has become one of the fads he has derided, and been subject to much over-literal interpretation by lesser thinkers. His Sloane Management review article ‘Surfing the edge of Chaos’ and his subsequent book, also called ‘Surfing the Edge of Chaos‘ showcase his thinking in this interesting area. However, as intellectually stimulating as it is; it is hard to see how directly managers can apply the ideas.