Thursday, September 8, 2016

Are you an organizational catalyst?

The newest buzzword in the agile community is "Catalyst". The Scrum Alliance considers being a "Catalyst" an essential part of being a coach and an agile leader. It's actually taken from the book "Leadership agility" by Bill Joiner.
It's always funny to hear coaches talk about the need to ask questions and reflect on your own behaviour, then doing exactly the opposite by unquestioningly adopting buzzwords. They have picked up something that seems to sell well and are now following in herd mentality. Since "agile coaches" are promoting something they don't even understand themselves, let me take some time to explain what a "catalyst" actually is!

The myth: "A catalyst speeds up a transition into a new state".
That's actually true, but you need to understand how a catalyst does that.
Catalysis is a highly complex chemical process with lots of constraints that one should be aware of when using the term.

No Philosopher's stone

A universal catalyst ("Philosopher's stone") that can make any kind of change happen does not exist.
Every catalyst is a "one trick pony" that can do only one thing in a very restricted context. In a different context, a catalyst will be useless or even an inhibitor. Do you really want to be good for one thing, and only that one thing?

Energy parity

The definition of a catalyst states, "In the presence of a catalyst, less free energy is required to reach the transition state, but the total free energy from reactants to products does not change"

This may be understood as "less energy is required". No: It means less energy is required to reach the transition state, but the total amount of energy to reach the goal does not change!

Let's translate what this means: The catalyst destabilizes the system in an otherwise stable state. Then, it channels the energy difference throughout the change process. All consumed energy is lost, and all the remaining energy must be invested before the catalyst is out of the system. The catalyst actually binds energy until the process ends.
The catalyst takes a massive active role in the change process. Typically, not much would happen without the catalyst. Every single aspect is being modified by the catalyst on more than one occasion.
The catalyst is an extrinsic change funnel, which in an agile context is equivalent to stating that the change is imposed on the target. A catalyst completely destroys autonomy.

Irreducible complexity

Catalytic reactions are highly complex. Scientifically, a catalytic reaction looks like this:

  1. X + C → XC
  2. Y + XC → XYC
  3. XYC → CZ
  4. CZ → C + Z

The same process, without a catalyst, would look like this:
  1. Y + X → Z
The catalyst is an essential component in every stage of a catalytic process, and there is no direct relationship between start and end of the process, although the catalyst is not necessary for the process to take place. Not only is the catalytic process significantly more complex than necessary, it may be impossible to figure out the natural relationship between X,Y and Z if one has never observed the reaction without presence of the catalyst.
The catalyst becomes "irreducible complexity" and hides the simplest way to reach a goal.


A catalyst "participates in the slowest step of a reaction, and rates are limited by amount of catalyst and its activity."

This simply translates into "The catalyst is the bottleneck of change."

Potentially unsustainable

A catalyst "does not change the energy difference between starting materials and products."

This also means that the energy difference between the starting point of the change and the endpoint thereof is independent of the catalyst. Catalysts can induce highly unsustainable change that would not have happened without them. Catalysts might even be the cause for creating an unstable system.

Value neutral

Catalysts also "do not change the extent of a reaction".

This is basically stating that the same result could have been achieved without the catalyst by investing more energy. Effectively, this means that the presence of the catalyst really only reduces the energy investment, but it does not add any extra value.

Change exempt

Let's close this discussion with the final straw: A catalyst, by very definition of the word, "remains unchanged after the reaction."

What this means: While the catalyst did put a lot of effort into the change, the catalyst ultimately was not changed. For the catalyst, the change was just a temporary thing that is completely brushed off, left without a trace.

Should you be a catalyst?

Let's sum this up: An organizational catalyst is someone who:

  • Is a one trick pony potentially causing damage with their involvement
  • Does something that could happen in different ways without them
  • Starts processes that can't be terminated until all energy has been spent (i.e., removes agility)
  • Interferes dramatically with others' autonomy
  • Adds significant complexity which can no longer be taken out of the system
  • Becomes a massive bottleneck and Single Point of Failure
  • Hides the real change going on from those who are involved
  • Does not learn anything from what they are doing

Decide for yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment