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Symmetric moulting

Moulting African penguin - Just Plain Agile

I recently visited Boulders Beach, the home of a colony of African penguins. They are always delightful and comical to watch – the pugs of the bird world. Except this time I spotted a rather sad looking fellow close to the water’s edge. He was moulting and his little tuxedo looked anything but elegant.

Moulting is a serious thing for birds: feathers wear out. In order to survive, the bird has to replace his feathers a few times a year. The process is a little tedious – it can’t happen overnight and it cannot happen all at the same time. The bird will die of exposure and probably hunger as well, since having no wing feathers render them flightless. They have to find safe places to rest and hide.

Wow. The resemblance to human and organisational change is uncanny. Change is uncomfortable and makes people and organisations appear unattractive for a time. One fact in a Wikipedia article surprised me: generally the process of moulting is symmetric. Left and right, front and back equally affected. And I started to wonder: what is the equivalent of symmetric change in a human context? I can only think that the symmetry of moulting helps the bird balance in the air (or water) whilst undergoing the uncomfortable change. We surely would like to do the same – keep our balance during change.

What would become possible if we remind ourselves that the chaos and general ‘non-attractiveness’ of change is only temporary?  If we can figure out how to do symmetric, partial, continuous change? What would it do to our survival and evolution as humans, teams and organisations?

Antoinette

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