It’s Time for Some Global Holometaboly

Monarch Caterpillar eating milkweed Those of us who study and write about the difficulty of leading organizational change often use the image of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly as a metaphor for dramatic transformation.

But wanting to become a butterfly doesn’t make you one. You have to want to become a butterfly so badly that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.

That’s a fancy way of saying that having even a compelling vision of the future isn’t enough; to get there you have to give up the past and walk away from the present.

But there is another component of the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation that most of us don’t think about and certainly don’t understand very well.

Think for a moment about the process of becoming a butterfly; the caterpillar essentially commits suicide by spinning itself into a cocoon and turning itself into an amorphous blob of protoplasm (it’s not quite that simple; some structures and organs remain, but they undergo a massive re-organization).

The molecular structures within that “blob” rearrange themselves and recombine into something completely new. The butterfly emerges only after the caterpillar has disintegrated into nothingness. That disintegration and temporary state of complete disorganization is a necessary step on the journey from caterpillar to butterfly.monarchbutterfly-dreamatico

(For a fascinating explanation of this process, called holometaboly by scientists, see “3-D Scans Reveal Caterpillars Turning into Butterflies,” from the National Geographic website.)

I believe our social institutions are in the early stages of disintegration. The old rules don’t work anymore, yet too many of our leaders are clinging to the past. They are, to use futurist Bill Jensen’s language, “holding back” the future of work. They are unwilling to turn their people loose – to let them explore, experiment, and create new products, new ideas, and new understandings of what is possible.

Jensen believes that today’s leaders are too risk-averse to let go; they are scared to death by the uncertainties they see on the road ahead, so they hang on to leadership styles and beliefs that worked for them in the past. But, as management expert Marshall Goldsmith says so eloquently, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

This clinging to the past is exactly what is preventing us from reaching the future. Most leaders are so focused on command and control (that’s their identity, after all) that they are unable to imagine or experience the power of collective intelligence. They haven’t yet grasped the reality that today’s technologies have created a new “Age of Networked Intelligence” that enables any of us to collaborate with almost anyone else, anywhere in the world.

Power today comes from being connected, not from being “in control.” And in this connected world no one of us is smarter or more knowledgeable than all of us. As author and former COO Rod Collins puts it so well, “Nobody is smarter than everybody.” But we aren’t very good at tapping the diverse experiences, knowledge, and skills that are already abundant inside every organization.

My friend David Isaacs, co-founder of The World Cafe, told me recently that in his 20+ years of showing organizations how to achieve higher levels of consciousness and effectiveness every organization he has worked with already had within it all the knowledge and talent it needed to succeed.

Early in my career I worked for a large, well-known textbook publishing firm. I have never forgotten one editor, a brilliant, well-educated woman, who told me that she had just been docked a full week’s vacation. My friend was supposed to be at her desk and at work every morning at 8:30 AM; her supervisor had been tracking her arrivals and had documented that over the past twelve months she had accumulated almost 40 hours of “tardiness” (10 minutes one day, 5 minutes another, and so on). It apparently made no difference that the editor often stayed an hour or two late in the evening to complete a particular project.

That might have been an appropriate managerial disciplinary action if the editor had been working on an assembly line somewhere and had been paid by the hour. But she was a former secondary school teacher with a Masters degree who was being paid a salary to collaborate with a college professor on a high school science book. She was being paid to create knowledge, not to sit at her desk for 8 hours a day!

I am convinced that the Command-and-Control style of management, which remains prevalent in most organizations today, is the primary reason we have such low levels of employee engagement and such high levels of employee turnover (even in the soft economy we’re still fighting to get out of), and it also explains the increasing popularity of self-employment in the United States and in other developed economies around the world.

Isn’t it time to let go of being a caterpillar? Let’s commit some mass holometaboly; butterflies have a lot more fun.


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4 replies
  1. Erik
    Erik says:

    Hi Jim,

    Always nice content to react on. Thank you for that.
    I do not think I have to clarify that I think along the same lines as you write about.
    But the caterpillars turning into butterflies did bring a thought to my mind.
    Looking at tthe National Geographic pictures it dawned on me that their transformation is staged.
    So coming from Taylor and moving to networked collaboration patterns, the question is: what type of ‘staging’ would provide a natural pathway? We talk about end-stages, we far less talk about achievable transformations fitting to our human abilities.

    • James Ware
      James Ware says:

      Erik, thank you for your thoughts. I am very intrigued with your observation that there are in fact distinct phases (or sub-phases) in the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Because we can’t see them (without those marvelous pictured from National Geographic), we don’t realize they are there. I know there are predictable phases/stages in organizational change as well; perhaps we should be spending more time and energy sorting out those stages and how to “see” them as they are occurring.

      It also just occurred to me that the caterpillar to butterfly transformation is a predictable one that recurs over and over – yet in most organizational transformations we experience great uncertainty and even fear about the future.

      Someone once said that we call things “chaotic” because we don’t understand them. Maybe there is more structure and predictability than we can see….

      Definitely food for thought!

  2. Rudd van Deventer
    Rudd van Deventer says:

    Hi Jim,

    Really great thoughts there.
    Having the courage of our convictions to take that leap into the unknown is part of the scenario. Very often we just do not know where we will end up with some of these exercises and committing all is very difficult and scary. Being fully committed and not having a bolt hole to ‘Business as Usual’ might be necessary for those who ‘flip flop’!
    Appalled by your story about the editor – no understanding about value there from her supervisor.
    Nice thread of thought.

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