Rise and Fall and Rise of Organizations

I attended a workshop in the 90s where Bob Hallett introduced me to Lawrence Miller’s work.  I knew it then and know it now that this progression of organizational change happens in business, education, and nonprofits. COVID is changing the world.  Even though it seems like forever, the changes may be short-term and organizations have to deal with the post COVID future.  See if the graph below and explanation fits with your view of history.

Think about innovative companies, educational practice, and social institutions that have come and gone.  It seems like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and a few others are able to continually evolve and stay on the edge of learning.  I will address how we might respond later in the article below.

The graphic below is based on the book by Lawrence Miller (1989) Barbarians to Bureaucrats




Organizations go through a cycle.  Miller’s book has seven stages.  I have shortened his model as you can see above.  See the book summary for a fuller explanation –  https://learningomnivores.com/what-were-reading/barbarians-to-bureaucrats/     .

The blue line is what happens in the organization with initiatives and/or new processes.  It is a leading indicator.  The green line signifies the results e.g. profits, test scores, people we help, etc.  It is a lagging indicator.  Results usually show up after the change in practice or policy.

A prophet appears with a new great idea.  The prophet is excited and draws others to the idea.  Once enough people accept the idea and join in, the organization starts to change behaviors. This could be with a new invention or a way to teach and/or a leadership strategy, etc.

In the next stage, barbarian, has total commitment to this new idea. They pick up the banner and keep the fire burning.  As you can see from the graphic, the results start to show positive results. The barbarian is a believer, is passionate, convincing, and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.  A prophet and a barbarian are many times the same person. What makes barbarians so effective is when in battle, they are the first ones on the front lines.  They lead by modeling, congruence of word and deed, and will advocate at every chance to anyone who will listen.

Staying in status quo is not what prophets and barbarians want.  They feed off of new ideas, new possibilities, and a chance to change systems for the better.  As they get focused on new ideas, managers take over.  The results are still showing positive gains.  Managers try to create systems, policies, and procedures to keep getting the results they see.  The problem is that the prophet and barbarians know there is a half-life to most ideas and they want to create something new.  Managers, seeing results want to keep things going as it is.

Ah, the bureaucratic stage emerges.  The bureaucrat’s role is to say ‘no’ to changes.  They have seen results.  The results have peaked. The bureaucrat doesn’t see the intellectual horsepower has gone on to learn about new ideas.  Some have left the organization.  Bureaucrats don’t like risk and believe what was successful before will continue in the future.

Trammel Crow said, “there’s as much risk in doing nothing as in doing something.”

How many times have you been in a workplace or meeting when a great idea surfaces.  And, the reception of the new idea is lukewarm at best.  The ‘dirty dozens’ are voiced telling the person why it won’t work.  Meanwhile the energy for ideas goes down and the profits and/or results with it.

Enter the Aristocracy phase.  The knowledge, creativity, and energy of the very people the organization needs is gone.  The results are bottoming out.  The aristocracy’s role is to build armies to protect them.  Sometimes in business golden parachutes are given to remove leaders.  In education, leaders are sometimes removed (No golden parachutes).  OK a few superintendents get buyout packages.

So, what is an answer?  Notice I didn’t say ‘the’ answer.

In times of change we need multiple pathways to solve problems.  Business has quicker feedback loops than education.  It is called profitability and staying in business.  In social institutions e.g. education, there is a longer, and sometimes more dangerous, feedback loop because of the increased time of the delay.

Another book that helped me understand one way to deal with this natural cycle of organizations is “Break-Point and Beyond” by George Land and Beth Jarman (1992). A quote, “For those willing to move ahead with conscious awareness of the natural laws of change, the future offers unparalleled opportunity to reshape our lives, our organizations, and our world into what we want.” As I remember the graphic in the book, just past recognizing the decrease in results, look for new prophets and barbarians to initiate a new cycle. See the Red line below.







So, here are a few questions you might want to think about in your organization:

  • How do you identify and listen to the prophets and barbarians?
  • How do you increase talent density in your organization?
  • What might you do to prepare during the management stage for the future?
  • Do you try pilot programs to see if a new idea might work?
  • Is there enough psychological safety in the system to promote and hear diverse ideas?

In Miller’s book there are ways to identify people in each stage, how to get along with people in each stage, and how to lead people who report to you.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”  John Shedd.

In the past, staying in safe harbor, learning basic skills, was enough for a stable future.  NOT NOW.  Whatever your situation as a student, teacher, vocation, military, etc. you will need to continue learning.  You will probably need to learn at a faster pace as technology, environment, and job requirements change and accelerate.

Ah, back to the red line. George Land’s Theory of Transformation – most leaders get stuck in a phase of growth that no longer serves them.  They don’t know how to integrate the new and different which was previously excluded.  I liked what he wrote in 1992 as a new job title:  Vice-President of the Possible.

Creativity will continue to be a vital attribute in the future. Land and Jarman write that a second breakpoint is where we see connections from similar and dissimilar issues rather than advancing what we already know.  These quantum jumps in thinking abound if you are open to looking for them.  Think of the effect Uber has had to the taxicab business.  Digital technology changed developing film for photographs. (OK you young people don’t remember waiting several days for film to be developed).  Amazon and bookstores.

As I think about education, COVID is changing and will continue to change the way we deliver learning.  I think that when we finally get a handle on the virus, some think we will go back to the way things were.  I say, “bullfeathers.”  I don’t think we are going back.  We educators, myself included, should start thinking about the red line. What is the next iteration?  What is needed for my grandkids future?  Tell me the basics of 2030 and I am your guy. Land and Jarman write “CREATIVITY IS NOT ONLY A NATURAL PROCESS; IT’S THE NATURAL PROCESS.”  Nature adapts.  This reminds of Peter Senge’s quote in The Fifth Discipline.  “Nature Bats Last.”

Here are the traps posited in Land and Jarman’s book.

Trap Number 1:  Measurements Become the Mission

Trap Number 2:  Past Assumptions Go Unquestioned

Trap Number 3:  Embedded Investments.

Trap Number 4:  Blaming Others

Trap Number 5:  Maximizing Profit

Trap Number 6:  Information Filtering

Trap Number 7:  Tight Control

Any of these traps ring a bell? Richard Pascale (1990) Managing on the Edge wrote “Nothing Fails Like Success.”  I think that is what Miller’s work indicates.  Success tends to dampen the need or desire for change.  We get complacent. One of my favorite quotes is by Karen Clark – “Life is change, growth is optional, choose wisely.”

I just finished reading No Rules Rules by Hastings & Meyer (2020)  In education there are limitations that business does not have.  However, this book is full of creative ideas that can be adapted.

One is ‘Increase Talent Density.’  How do we attract and retain the best talent.  What I read currently is that experienced teachers and leaders are leaving education, especially if they can retire.  That means less experienced staff will continue to be a higher percentage of educators.  How are we developing these new to the profession?  How are we supporting them in schools or wherever we share learning?  Are our systems in place to share repertoire from experienced staff and share new ideas from less experienced staff?

A second idea is to increase candor.  Educators generally are really nice people.  When I was living in Minnesota we called it ‘Minnesota Nice.’  OK, we can be nice AND we need to talk about real issues, real data, real learning without fear of being labeled an outcast or a crazy maverick.  How do we develop our environment to listen to and possible learn from mavericks?  They might have workable answer.

When consulting or coaching leaders, I often say “talk to your new people.”  If they trust you, they will tell you what the culture feels like and ask questions like, ‘why do you do it this way?’  Once people have been in a system for a couple of years, that’s the way we do it here.  It may be time to challenge the way we do things and how might we do it differently and better.

I strongly suggest reading Amy Edmondson’s work on psychological safety in The Fearless Organization (2019).  We want a culture for adults to learn from each other without blame and shame.  We want a culture for students so that mistakes can be learned from without fear of being ridiculed.  I heard Tom Peters once say, ‘the chance of a new idea is inversely proportionate to being shot.’  NOT literally, but figuratively in the culture.  Question – does your culture support new ideas or work to suppress them?  Do your committee and leadership groups support expanding repertoire or put roadblocks in the way of innovation?  Does the staff read from outside education looking for different ideas that might generate creativity?

As Austin Kleon said in Steal Like an Artist (2012), “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”  My suggestion is the reverse Las Vegas Effect.  Whatever goes on here, tell everybody.  The more you tell, the more people tell you.  Learn from anywhere, anytime, from anyone.  We will need all the ideas we can read about, get from workshops, and steal.

Go get ‘em.  Change how you do things and change the results.


Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Hastings, Reed & Meyer, Erin. (2020). No Rules Rules.  New York:  Penguin.

Kleon, Austin. (2012). Steal Like an Artist.  New York:  Workman Publishing

Land, George. & Jarman, Beth.  (1992).  Break-point and beyond.  USA:  Harcourt Brace

Jovanovich, Inc.

Miller, Lawrence.  (1989).  Barbarians to bureaucrats.  New York:  Fawcett.



Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!