Caterpillar transformation

fluffy caterpillar

I wrote a previous piece on needing to become liquid to change. I have taken a little longer to reflect on how nature has created her own transformation program and thought perhaps there’s something we can all learn here. Especially those of you who always seem to find yourselves involved in organisational change in some way. Whether it is about directing it, implementing it, designing it, or becoming it. And as people interested in reimagining our current realities and creating new ones, transformation (at a scale) is an important topic.

I thought we’d take a closer look at how the caterpillar does it. And perhaps, to take a leaf from a hungry caterpillar…

…instead of focussing on organisational transformation, we should be exploring what organisational metamorphosis looks like.

I believe what it means to be in business needs a complete redefinition rather than change around the edges.

Find the right host environment

We start with an egg, don’t ask me where the egg comes from, that is another conversation. The egg is attached to a leaf. This leaf is special, it’s not any leaf. It is the leaf of the host plant that provides exactly the right environment and chance for survival for the caterpillar who will soon emerge. The leaf is one that will eventually become food for the very hungry caterpillar.

Environment plays a crucial role in enabling transformationThe egg is placed on a leaf that will provide all the support, protection and nutrition the little caterpillar needs to sustain the transformation. Any transformation effort is going to consume energy and requires specific resources tuned to the activities of change. This change might be the introduction of a new innovation capability or culture, or the transformation of an entire organisation’s ways of working.

The activities of transformation differ to those of business as usual. There will always be tension here. This tension is often referred to as the ‘pain of change’ though it certainly doesn’t need to be. We can design for all conditions of transformation, though we first need to be aware we can and know what to design for, and then we need to want to.

Have a clear outcome in mind—singular focus

When the egg hatches, the baby caterpillar emerges. It has one thing on its mind. A singular focus. That singular focus is to eat eat eat. It consumes the leaf that was its home and grows in width and length. It eats to store energy for the next phase of change it will need to go through along its journey to becoming a butterfly.

When we begin with transformation, we need a singular focus—the outcome of transformation. Not the ‘what’ or ‘how’ of transformation, but the ‘why’. This needs to be clear all the way through. This is our singular focus.

Often, we try to do too many things at once. When we do this, we need structures and governance to manage the competing requirements and complexity of tasks. We then realise, we have essentially re-created what we already had. The thing that sets successful transformation apart is the teams ability to focus their efforts on a meaningful outcome rather than being sucked into the vortex of the current world. We can’t transform completely without first having this singular focus on the transformation outcome.

Be prepared for multiple iterations

As the caterpillar grows, it sheds it skin. It doesn’t get a bigger skin and then grow into it. It grows a skin underneath the one it already has, and sheds the old skin. It does this over and over again, about five times I think. At the first shedding, it doesn’t look like much, by the time the fifth shedding has occured it kind of looks like what its supposed to, a caterpillar.

When progressing along the transformation path, we need to grow many different skins. Each layer of skin might relate to the different elements involved in the transformation, ways of working, technology, brand, culture, so on. The most important point is that we grow the new skin first, without shedding the old.

The way this might manifest is that we start off with a small group of people, who are working in different ways, sectioned off from the organisation (on a new leaf) and have the resources they need to be successful (food and environment). They then establish new ways of working with a singular focus. As they learn, they will establish newer ways of working and innovating (the new skin) and they will shed the old. The process of working in this way creates a culture of constant transformation which is essential to keep up with the pace of technology, market and customer expectations.

In the world of innovation and transformation, we are never ever done transforming.

The other important aspect of this ‘shedding’ is the need to embrace the iteration of our transformation approach and plans (and direction). The iteration of our approach is essential because as the system transforms, it behaves differently and we learn different things. This iteration, this shedding, is an essential part of creating a reisilient, meaningful and deliberate transformation. Without the iterations, we are not making available the learnings we need, nor building the fundamental capability of constant change creation that we need in innovation.

Know when to provide protection

And then… the fifth shedding, the fifth instar, the caterpillar knows it is ready to liquify! This is most definitely my favourite part. It molts for the final time and this skin then becomes the chrysalis—the outer shell.

During transformation, there comes a time when the new ways of working need to create its own chrysalis to protect it from the outer forces and demands. Often these demands come from the incumbant organisation still dealing with the current perceived risks and compliance requirements, for example.

At this stage of development, we need to protect the emergent transformation from the incumbant. Nature knows how and when to do this, ahh, naturally. For us, in this context, it takes wisdom and experience to know when to enact the chrysalis. In another blog, I’ll talk about how to know when to create the protective layer.

Be clear on the starting principles

And then… when this chyrsalis is in place… things get gory. In order to transform, the caterpillar liquifies. A fascinating aspect of this liquification is the existence of imaginal discs or cells {ref: Scientific American: How Does a Caterpillar Turn into a Butterfly?}.

These imaginal cells are highly organised and contain the information required to grow the body of the butterfly. They survive the digestion process. Yes, the caterpillar digests itself within the chrysalis. Hence the caterpillar soup reference in my previous blog. This soup is rich in protein and provides all the nutrients required for the rapid cell division to form the new body parts of the butterfly. The importance of the environment and access to the right resources to be able to transform is highlighted again during this stage of transformation.

This is such an important insight. The imaginal cells, or the starting principles of what we are transforming into, are in existence right from the beginning. This relates to knowing what the imaginal cell equivalents are for the transformation we are setting out to achieve. These need to be present from the beginning and need to be sturdy, resilient and digestion proof.

In my experience, I have found elements such as values, purpose, intention and stance survive the digestion process. In business terms, the digestion process may be a down turn in the market requiring a down size, or a competitive disruption or a change of leadership. If there is a strong foundation and connection with the companies reason for existence (other than making money), its values, intention and stance it can transform and adapt to the new conditions completely, with resilience. Just like the caterpillar.

Pay close attention and have empathy for readiness

The readiness to transform, to do things differently, to think differently is often overlooked and not considered. We often launch into incorporating new ways of working without necessarily considering whether those who will be a part of the change are ready to be. Are even willing to be. Not everyone likes to liquify, and some people need to get to know you first. Even the caterpillar take five run ups before it is ready to ‘enact the chrysalis’ and liquify. I think this state of readiness needs to be designed for. What are the expectations of the groups involved in the change, and how might we design the environment, the resources and starting conditions for transformation to succeed? How can we be empathic to their level of readiness?

Take the time to grow into the new

Once the liquification process is complete, and the caterpillar has become a butterfly within the cocoon, it emerges. Even at this point, after all the eating, shedding, liquification and transformation, it isn’t ready to fly yet. It needs to pump its wings full of fluid (from its abdomen) to inflate them to their right size. The size required for flight. When they reach that size, it exercises the flight muscles. Then, when the butterfly knows it now has the muscle strength to support it in flight, it takes off.

Often when we have ‘completed’ transformation (an oxymoron in a business context in my opinion) we believe the organisation is ready to fly. We then see cases where the organisation seems to rubber band back to ‘old’ more familiar ways of working. Post transformation, the new organisation needs time to get to the right size, to scale to a size that can sustain what it is there to do. It needs the opportunity to flex its new muscles (while still on the ground) so that it can build the pathways and infrastructure that support its new form. This may take the form of providing pilot cases that enable new ways of working to take shape and be practiced so they then gain traction and form new habits around them. These new habits can then be joined in different combinations to set up new patterns of work.

There is much to learn from this caterpillar case study. By reflecting on this process of metamorphosis, we can see the deliberate and separate steps that exists to ensure the transformation takes hold and completes, just as nature intended.