The Crucible - Reforming an organization with heat

crucible is where you melt down your existing metal and add new metals to create and cast a different alloy that fits the current need. This is often the only way to reshape an organization for the future. Major changes driven by external forces require dramatic adjustments outside the standard processes in order to drive change at a faster pace. 

Corporations and groups are like an alloy comprised of the company's stated culture, its actual culture, and the attitudes and beliefs of the people who work for it.  The initial cast defines how a company operates and determines how it succeeds or fails. Big changes require attacking that historic casting.

Mature organizations struggle with deep change because they have hardened around policies and behavior that are broadly executed but may not be well understood. There is strength in this as it can resist or overcome transient business, regulatory, or economic issues. That strength is a weakness that makes it difficult to adapt and make smaller decisions before they become painfully large painful decisions. 

Groups must often be broken into constituent parts and rebuilt with new blood or by empowering those that were not previously at the center. We need to make sure we are pressuring, melting, and mixing the right ingredients. The existing processes and people will resist saying that you are scrapping stuff that works or melting down something you will just have to make again in the same shape.  Sometimes they are right but often that resistance is more broad-based and some people feel that just melting down pretty much everything is the way to go. You see this in organizations that bring in new leadership that drives out most of the old leadership culture guards. 

I'll talk about approaches for creating a crucible of change at different levels in future articles.

Getting it right

Power structures defend the status quo.  People worry about their current skills, the power that their knowledge of the existing system delivers, their rent payments, and family obligations. 

One of the problems of a giant remake, putting the entire company into the crucible, is that you can mistake heat for progress. The worst outcome is that you go through the effort, melt everything down, and rebuild exactly what you had before. No one wants a wartime scrap-drive event where people's pots and pans were remade into pots and pans because the alloy wasn't right for the new purpose of making airplanes.

People Matter

This process doesn't need to be people-hostile. People matter and this can be done with dignity and in a way that can provide opportunity. Reforging is stressful.  It is hard and some people won't make it out the other end.   

Putting every layer under stress

Transformation must operate at multiple levels.  Heat has to be applied at the team level and at the executive level and the management layers in between.  I've seen people make change happen top down I've seen individual areas try and push change from the bottom up.  

Top-down can fail when the intermediate layers play passive resistance knowing that the attention span from the top is often only one or two years, too short a period to make real change.  Excessive turnover at the executive or senior level means continual priority changes as they try and prove they have what it takes.

Bottom-up can fail because the management tier and executives don't change, sticking with their same management and control patterns. This smothers the attempts from the bottom.

Organizations return to their previous shape if...

Organizations are like metal.  They will bend under pressure but return pretty closely back to their previous shape unless they are heated past some temperature. We can take the opportunity at that time to change the mix/alloy in order to give the organization different properties.  Failure to push the organization past its level of resistance results in a lot of wasted money and effort. Inevitably the people that supported that effort will leave in frustration or be driven out by the status quo.


What is a Crucible?

The Meriam-Webster dictionary has several definitions of crucible that fit what we are talking about

  1. a vessel of a very refractory material (such as porcelain) used for melting and calcining a substance that requires a high degree of heat
  2. a severe test; “He’s ready to face the crucible of the Olympics.”
  3. a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development

A crucible is a vessel in which metallic elements are melted to be cast into new objects or to create a new alloy. 

A crucible is defined as a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development. 

I've written about transformation and challenges before:

A mess of messy links - to be updated

Revision History

Created 2023 11


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