Iconoclasts and Iconoblasts

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The human body is an amazing self-repairing system. It does this by being able to detect damage and to repair just the damaged part while still continuing to function. One visible example of this is how it repairs a broken bone. The skeleton is the hard, jointed framework that protects and supports the soft bits. Some of the soft bits, the muscles, both stablise and move this framework of bones. Together they form the musculoskeletal system that gives us the power to move ourselves.  So when, by accident, we break a bone how do we repair the damage?  The secret is in the microscopic structure of the bone. Bone is not like concrete, solid and inert, it is a living tissue. Two of the microsopic cells that live in the bone are the osteoclasts and the osteoblasts (osteo- is Greek for “bone”; -clast is Greek for “break” and -blast is Greek for “germ” in the sense of something that grows).  Osteoclasts dissolve the old bone and osteoblasts deposit new bone – so when they work together they can create bone, remodel bone, and repair bone. It is humbling when we consider that millions of microscopic cells are able to coordinate this continuous, dynamic, adaptive, reparative behaviour with no central command-and-control system, no decision makers, no designers, no blue-prints, no project managers. How is this biological miracle achieved? We are not sure – but we know that there must be a process.

Organisations are systems that face a similar challenge. They have relatively rigid operational and cultural structures of roles, responsibilities, lines of accountability, rules, regulations, values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.  These formal and informal structures are the conceptual “bones” of the organisation – the structure that enables the organisation to function.  Organisations also need to grow and to develop – which means that their virtual bones need to be remodelled continuously. Occasionally organisations have accidents – and their bones break – and sometimes the breaks are deliberate: it is called “re-structuring”.

There are people within organisations that have the same role as the osteoblast in the body. These people are called iconoclasts and what they do is dissolve dogma. They break up the rigid rules and regulations that create the corporate equivalent of concrete – but they are selective. Iconoclasts are sensitive to stress and to strain and they only dissolve the cultural concrete where it is getting in the way of improvement. That is where dogma is blocking innovation.  Iconoclasts question the status quo, and at the same time explain how it is causing a problem, offer alternatives, and predict the benefits of the innovation. Iconoclasts are not skeptics or cynics – they prepare the ground for change – they are facilitators.

There is a second group people who we could call the iconoblasts. They are the ones who create the new rules, the new designs, the new recipes, the new processes, the new operating standards – and they work alongside the iconoclasts to ensure the structure remains strong and stable as it evolves. The iconoblasts are called Improvement Scientists.

Improvement Scientists are like builders – they use the raw materials of ideas, experience, knowledge, understanding, creativity and enthusiasm and assemble them into new organisational structures.  In doing so they fully accept that one day these structures will in turn be dismantled and rebuilt. That is the way of improvement.  The dogma is relative and temporary rather than absolute and permanent. And the faster the structures can be disassembled and reassembled the more agile the organisation becomes and the more able it is to survive change.

So how are the iconoclasts and iconoblasts coordinated? Can they also work effectively and efficiently without a command-and-control system? If millions if microscopic cells in our bones can achieve it then maybe the individuals within organisations can do it too. We just need to understand what makes an iconoclast and an iconoblast and effective partnership and an essential part of an organisation.