Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Different phases of growth and change in human organisations

When reflecting on the current state of an organisation (whether a university, a research group, an NGO, a funding agency, a state government department, a business, ...) it is natural to consider two questions.

How did it get to where it is today? In particular, what is the origin of its current positive and negative properties?

What can be done to move it in a positive direction in the future?

Human organisations are complex and diverse, yet their evolution as they grow seem to exhibit certain universal features, that transcend both the purpose and the relative size of the organisation.
There is a classic article, Evolution and Revolution as Organizations, by Larry E. Greiner, originally published by the Harvard Business Review in 1972.

The article is summarised in the figure below.

Greiner was solely concerned with businesses. However, this model has since been applied to other types of organisations.
Aside: His article contains no data or references! Perhaps, his excuse is that he wrote the article in a Swiss ski resort (long before the internet) while recovering from a skiing injury!

I will illustrate the model by considering how it might describe the evolution of a scientific research group. It starts with a young faculty member and ends being part of a large research institute.

Phase 1: Creativity.
A young assistant professor (PI) starts a new research group with start-up funds and two graduate students. They are attracted to work with her because of her passion and the excitement of working on a new technique from the ground up. Lots of different things are tried to get the technique to work. Indeed the original technique does not work but a new one is discovered. Everyone works long hours in the lab. The future is uncertain. She may not get funding or tenure. There is frequent and informal communication within the group. Thus, there is really no need for formal group meetings or policies. After about five years things start to change. Papers are published. Grant applications are successful. More grad students and a postdoc join the group. Tenure is granted. But some frustrations grow as the informality no longer works. The leader spends less time in the lab, travels more, and is less available to students. This leads to the next phase.

Phase 2: Direction.
There is a need for consolidation and organisation. The new technique is now well established. The goal is now to use it as much as possible on a suite of materials. The focus is on fine tuning the technique not on making big new discoveries. Creativity is valued less. There are now weekly group meetings. Each student has a weekly meeting with the PI. Communication becomes more formal and the relationships more distant. The group is now producing a steady stream of papers attracting more grants, and is now joined by undergraduates, visiting faculty, and more grad students and postdocs. There are now formal policies about lab use. People now join the group for different reasons than before. Some are attracted by stability or reputation. Frustrations are present and conflicts associated with competition for resources, whether concerning access to instruments, time with the PI, or author order on papers. The success of the group leads to it attracting more resources. But, this comes with the cost of increased accountability and the associated administrative load. The PI now spends more time communicating with funding agencies, university management, and collaborators, than with people in the group. The PI is rarely seen in the lab, and enjoys her job less.

Phase 3: Delegation.
The PI now delegates supervision of graduate students to postdocs. A technical officer is hired to manage the lab. A group secretary (or PA) takes care of many administrative matters and schedules meetings between group members and the PI. A theory postdoc is hired to do in-house theory. The department hires a new junior faculty member to work in a research area that has some overlap with this well-established group. As the group grows into new areas it becomes divided by research topic or technique. Competition between sub-groups emerge for resources and attention. The PI has lost control over the whole operation and there is a lack of co-ordination between sub-groups.

Phase 4: Co-ordination.
Part of the research group moves into new labs in a new institute building on campus, with a newly hired director. He works with his business manager to impose co-ordination between research groups. The original PI often receives attractive job offers and finally moves to a different university, partly in frustration. The institute director uses this as an opportunity to "reorganise" the different groups in the institute with the goal to make them co-ordinate better about use of instruments, grant applications, and collaborations. He also puts pressure on each group to be self-sustaining financially.
Things have now become quite impersonal and bureaucratic. Some graduate students now join the group because they are impressed by the shiny new building and all the expensive instruments in the lab. But some, older graduate students and postdocs resent the "managers" who they consider have little experience at the "coal face" of research. There is not much innovation or creativity happening. This all leads to the "red-tape" crisis.

Phase 5: Collaboration.
Greiner claims:
The last observable phase emphasizes strong interpersonal collaboration in an attempt to overcome the red-tape crisis. Where Phase 4 was managed through formal systems and procedures, Phase 5 emphasizes spontaneity in management action through teams and the skillful confrontation of interpersonal differences. Social control and self-discipline replace formal control. This transition is especially difficult for the experts who created the coordination systems as well as for the line managers who relied on formal methods for answers.
I remain to be convinced whether this actually ever happens. It is certainly what is desirable, but the obstacles to it happening seem formidable.

Greiner claims that each phase of growth produces problems that lead to a revolution.
But, in each phase of growth the solutions implemented in the previous revolution inevitably produce problems that lead to a new crisis and revolution.
Ironically, for a business professor this determinist perspective (inevitability) is a somewhat Marxist view of history!

A second important claim is that the type of managers or leaders required at the different phases have quite different personalities, strengths, skills, values, and training. Consequently, each revolution is associated with a time of conflict within the organisation.

Why am I interested in all of this? How is it relevant to universities?
There are two ideas that I think are particularly important.

The first idea, is that different phases of growth attract quite different types of people to the organisation. The first phase tends to attract creative people who are driven by passion for thinking, learning, and research. They are independent thinkers who tend to dislike formality and structure.
In contrast, success and growth leads to attracting people who may be more motivated by money, power, or social status. Furthermore, they may be more passionate about organisation, procedures, and structures, than the actual original "core business." In fact, they would be just as happy working in HR, finance, or management in a soft drinks company, a large NGO, as in a university. These differences inevitably lead to conflicts of values. I think this is actually one of the major problems of research universities today. They have become so "successful", large, wealthy, and complex, that they now attract the "wrong" type of people to leadership and management. Passion for transformative education of undergraduates and for creative diligent scholarship is just not present.

The second idea, is the incredible challenge of going from phase 4 to phase 5. In a complex and large organisation how do you create a culture and structures that use the massive resources of the large organisation to actually foster the creativity, entrepreneurship, flexibility, and passion of "grass roots" activities that were present at stage 1, and are essential for the long-term viability and relevance of the organisation.

What do think about Greiner's growth model?
How is it relevant, whether to research groups, departments, or universities?


  1. Sins of the PI


    Another won below.

  2. "She" is used throughout the article. May be inadvertently used by the author , since it was written long before the internet. The " He's" are also responsible for this after they get tenure. There are more " He's " than " She's " in academia. Please, a request , write your own one line appendix as "Please take it as gender neutral"
    There are plenty of articles in Journal of Education a good journal on the aspect you have posted.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    I should stress this post is not primarily about how PIs treat their group members, or even about the structure and management of research groups. It is about the claim that a wide range of human organisations exhibit similar dynamics in their growth and response to change.

  4. I know this is out of topic. But this type of comments have occur many times in real life too. So, if I may just comment on the use of "she". I think these days we have too much concern of political correctness. I'm a female academic and I'm in no way offended by the post. The "she" or female here is used quite differently than for instance in the book flatland ( http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/97/pg97-images.html ), which is quite demeaning.