The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I've read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs--The Calm Before the Storm--Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb's and Greg Treverton's article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise--or, in other words, an intelligence failure--it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly--or so we thought--gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don't get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you're remodeling your kitchen. It's messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year's strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the "political variability" that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!