Organizational Change and Unpredictability


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

The earth’s tectonic plates are shifting; economies, governments and social values are changing.  Extraordinary advances in technology, especially, have created a borderless economy and that has created the conditions of permanent turbulence that I call Wartime.  Increasing numbers of organizations and people, everywhere, face ever-increasing competition and accelerating change.

In addition to international trading treaties, improvements in transportation and containerization, privatization and deregulation, the e-conomy, new economy, global economy, or Wartime economy is based on IT, and The Web.  These changes created a borderless and boundary less world in which time and distance are increasingly insignificant.  The result of that is work migrates anywhere, reality becomes increasingly Darwinian and competition increases faster than opportunity does.  Web speed becomes normal and, most of all, change, turbulence and unpredictability accelerate.  That’s wartime.  The requirements of doing things Better! Faster! Cheaper! dominate the economy.

Conditions of Peacetime—of little and moderate change, relatively low risk and low volatility, reasonable security, dependability and predictability, and promotions and raises tied to seniority are being replaced by swift and major change, high risk and volatility, insecurity, unpredictability and a meritocracy.  In other words, Peacetime conditions are being replaced by those of Wartime.

There are, though, still some nations, industries and organizations that remain largely on a Peacetime path; they change slowly, they offer some level of job security, and they honor seniority.  Universities, unionized organizations, many governments, civil service and the core business of utilities come to mind.

A second group of organizations, which includes the majority of large and mature businesses, have found it necessary to transform themselves over roughly the past fifteen years.  They’ve had to change from the calm, slow-moving gait of Peacetime to something significantly faster, flexible and friskier. Those organizations have been striving for and achieving some fundamental changes in their culture, strategies and practices.   Total change is so difficult that a total transformation is exceedingly rare.  That’s why organizations that set out on the path of transformation generally continue on that path permanently.

The third and smallest group of organizations was founded in the past twenty years and especially in the 1990’s and through today.  Since these companies were established in Wartime conditions, they take ever-rising requirements for major innovation, continuous adaptability, and accelerating speed for granted.

Wartime organizations are different from Peacetime organizations because of their IT genes and because they’re cutting-edge, and entrepreneurial. In their initial stages, especially, they’re intellect-intensive and the intellectual technology leadership has overwhelmingly come from young people in their teens, 20s and 30s instead of from more experienced senior people.

Because Wartime organizations are under relentless pressure to do things Better! Faster! and Cheaper!, the mood of urgency! or crisis is very different than it is in Peacetime organizations.

Characteristics of Peacetime and Wartime Organizations are:

Peacetime                                        Wartime

Calm and deliberate                            Fast, decisive

Cautious                                                 Intense hum

Quiet, comfortable                               Exciting

Hierarchical                                          Collegial

Competitive                                          Collaborative

Professional orientation                    Business-driven

Low to medium risk                           High risk

Work is often instrumental              Work satisfaction is critical

Psychology of employees                  Psychology of owners

Salaried                                                Shareholders

Good soldiers                                      Entrepreneurs

Seniority                                               Initiate

Report up                                             Direct

Fun!                                                       Fun! And more fun!

Polite                                                     Meritocracy

Standardized                                        Individualized

Different behaviors are required in Wartime from Peacetime and those behaviors reflect different values and priorities.  Many behaviors or personal qualities that are common in Peacetime organizations are barriers to success in a borderless economy where fast, effective innovation is requisite for success. The old-economy expected leaders, for example, to demonstrate authority by ordering subordinates. Subordinates, in turn, did what they were told and kept on saluting. That’s both slow and a waste of subordinates knowledge and talents.  It is also counterproductive in that it precludes innovation and teamwork.  In Peacetime, hoarding knowledge, people or money is an expected behavior. In Wartime, the rule is share! Or you’re history.  Note, too, that all Wartime behaviors require high levels of self-confidence. 

Peacetime Behaviors vs. Wartime Behaviors:


Giving orders; telling; controlling others, requiring.

Following procedures and rules; bureaucratic caution; learning what you’re told to learn; delay decisions.

Individualistic; judge others; hoard knowledge and resources; competitive.

Deferent; saluting up.

Prefers sameness.


Sharing power, listening; delegating; inspiring.

Innovating, autonomous; use judgment; entrepreneurial actions; initiate continuous learning; make decisions.

Collaborate; teach others; share information and resources; borderless interaction; cohesive.

Creatively confront; challenge up.

Prefers diversity.

In reality, leaders must use their judgment about when to give orders and when to share decision-making power. Wartime and Peacetime organizations are very different in terms of the kinds of experiences they offer, their priorities and values, the amount of compensation people might earn, their levels of risk or job security, and in the opportunities they offer for creativity and leadership. While some people love unpredictability, risk and autonomy, other people like to know their place and get their orders. There are three basic kinds of organizations: Peacetime, Transitional, and Wartime.  People can also be clustered into the same three groups. While it’s always been true that different people have different priorities, today we have far greater differences in priorities between people than we ever had before.  The E-Conomy or Wartime conditions have greatly broadened both the conditions of work and the possible pay-offs of work.  The largest differences are between Peacetime and Wartime organizations and the people who are attracted to one or the other of them.

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