The Wu Xing and organizational change
Wu Xing

It is true that organisational change happens in slow motion – so every small outcome we produce must drive to a bigger endgame. “Producing” things facilitates change; the better we get at “producing”, the quicker we build the organization. So, to steal Steve Job’s words – how do we ensure more of our ideas “get shipped”?

“The final step of an artist—the single validating act—was getting his or her work into boxes. Once you get the computers into people’s homes, you have penetrated their minds. But to do that, to make a difference in the world and a dent in the universe, you had to ship. You had to ship. You had to ship. Real artists ship.”

In revolutionary times big marketing organizations are prone to getting caught in the headlights; stunned into inaction and conflicting behaviours. To counteract the paralysis – and manage the change required to transform a business there are five dimensions that need to be balanced. I call them the five elements – the Wu Xing  – that are vital to success.

The first element is “wood”: to adapt to the changing environment organizations need to develop growth from new specialist capabilities. Firstly they need to attract new talent with the right vision, then they need to give teams entrepreneurial free reign to be “specialists” and drive their own growth path; and ultimately those “new” teams must get absorbed and integrated into the organization.

The process of growth and innovation must be replicable by creating an agile culture that rewards innovation. This is the “fire”. This is a defined structure on how teams can self organize themselves to act “collectively” to achieve rapid and groundbreaking solutions.  Creatives “brainstorm” via skunkwork teams: groups of people locked in a “hothouse” to come up with a solution or new service; Scientists publish via white papers; one Internet giant requires people to write a hypothetical press release which is reviewed in open forum. Define – produce – refine – replicate.

There is also the need to relearn things that we have known for a long time. “Earth” represents the yin and yang – the interdependence – between the old and new. Too many organisations forget the latent wisdom that abounds and lets it seep away unappreciated. Innovation is only of value if it can be incorporated into the organization to enhance the existing, or else it is a distraction. If we use innovation simply to create value with one activity, and lose value through the back door, then we are on the hamster wheel of hell.

Next comes “Metal”- Autumn – the period to harvest – to scale and build efficiency from the areas of growth. As specialist teams grow there comes a time to reintegrate them across the business, (social media for example), or to split the processes and enable a unit to live interdependently. In scaling and detaching processes we risk losing our technology and developer geniuses who contribute so much to the solutions. The best ideas require practitioners at the table – technology, social, search, mobile – at the core of the solution.

The most important element, to keep the others in check is “water”. In order to get people working together efficiently a common planning process that nourishes every part of the organization, is core to collaboration, integration and making people understand where they add value. And like water, no matter where it falls, it all rolls downhill to a common output, a common goal is need for organizations to make sure that the best plans are implemented in the best way. The only way to do that is through binding shared KPI’s – the gravity that pulls everyone into the same direction.

As we create and guide our teams I think it is important to remember that the natural ebb and flow of five elements is necessary and essential – it is the tension within them that creates the force required to drive change. My favourite quote about our constant cycle of change is from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong: “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”

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