Wellsprings of Creation: Perturbation and the Paradox of the Highly Disciplined Organization

by David James Brunner, Bradley R. Staats, Michael L. Tushman & David M. Upton

Overview — Many organizations struggle to balance the conflicting demands of efficiency and innovation. Organizations can become more efficient in the short run by replacing costly, unpredictable problem solving activity with consistent, streamlined routines. However, this efficiency often comes at the cost of long-run adaptability. The more organizational activity is dominated by stable routines, the less the organization learns, and the more rigid and inflexible it becomes. To escape this fate, the authors of this working paper theorize that highly disciplined organizations must actively engage in strategic and selective perturbation of established routines. A perturbation interrupts an established routine and creates an opportunity to innovate and learn. Using illustrations from Toyota, the authors investigate the conditions under which perturbations can sustain exploration in highly disciplined organizations. Key concepts include:

  • To sustain adaptability in the long term, perturbations must occur throughout the organization.
  • In highly disciplined organizations, adaptability depends on the active participation of organization members in inducing and interpreting perturbations.
  • Management must trust employees to perturb processes, teach them to detect and interpret perturbations, and motivate them to do so.
  • In the long term, business success depends as much on the commitment and knowledge of frontline employees as on strategic decision-making by senior management.

Author Abstract

Organizations face simultaneous imperatives to exploit and explore. Paradoxically, exploitation tends to drive out exploration, rendering organizations rigid and vulnerable to environmental change. Drawing on the Carnegie School, we propose a model where perturbation moderates the relationship between exploitation and exploration. We posit that highly disciplined organizations can sustain virtuous cycles of exploitation and exploration by deliberately perturbing their own processes. We provide illustrations from Toyota and formulate testable hypotheses about the mechanisms of perturbation.

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