Managing and Leading: The Helix as a Metaphor for Organizational Change

by Jane Arsenault on March 14, 2011

If we think of the tasks of managing and leading (M&L) as activities that steer an organization in a certain direction and sustain its well-being, then it stands to reason that there are themes embedded in that set of management and leadership tasks.  My thesis is that the themes really don’t change even though the environment may fluctuate wildly around us.  The picture to below is a helix. 

DoubleHelix If we think of an organization embedded in its environment and evolving over time in a specific direction, it takes on this very organic form.  I especially like the image because the helix is the basis of DNA, an essential component of all life forms.  Margret Wheatley, in her book Leadership and the New Science, talks about the similarity between organic life forms and organizational development.  As I have thought about her work, I have found this metaphor for organizational change of a helix spiraling through space and time helpful. 
What I come away with from this image is two sets of characteristics…one, the themes that weave together the spiraling outer core (the boundary between the entity and the world around it) and two, the bars that keep the helix from spinning apart.  What are they made of?  I think of them as lines or themes or threads of cohesive strategy that must be carefully thought through and shaped if the entity is to thrive in whatever world it is in.  They are also streams of energy that are initiated, sustained and shaped by leadership.  If we think of a leader as a helmsman or a driver, then these are the rudders or the reins by which we steer.

I see those themes as:

1.  The lines of continuity:  these are the bars that hold everything together.  These are the organizational elements that endure through time or that change very slowly, things like vision, mission and values, policies, attributes of culture,  engagement in a system of related products or services, practice philosophy, management principles.  Managing these ensures that there is a stable set of concepts and ideas that provide a conceptual framework for internal stakeholders (board, staff, volunteers), to count on through time.  They provide a sense of cohesive identity that allow people to understand how to engage, support, and function within the organization.

2.  The lines of accountability:  these are made up of threads in the outer spiral and are embedded in the internal reality of a functioning entity.  Some endure and some change.  They include internal elements such as data collection and evaluation,  quality assurance and practice improvement as well as the continuous adjustment of the outside threads of funder, donor, and regulator interaction and reporting.  Managing them expertly enhances the likelihood that resources will flow into the entity.

3.  The lines of adaptability:  these are threads in the outer spiral that are permeable and chameleon like, that allow information about how the environment is changing to come inside where it can be considered, thought about, and allowed to shape how an entity charts its course and changes its colors.  These threads are all about relationships and connections at their outermost edge and about innovation and change at their inner edge.  Managing these threads well ensures that an entity can adjust, survive, and continue to do well as the environment around it shifts and changes. 

These lines inform and support the strategic and tactical decision making of managers and leaders.  We will look at how to shape each one and how each relates to the various levels of decision making and to the shared power model on which every nonprofit is based as we proceed.

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