Crisis and Renewal:
Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change

David K. Hurst (Harvard Business School Press, 1995)

This is a book that tells stories about organizational stagnation and change. Arguing that managers must sometimes create crises by committing acts of what the author calls “ethical anarchy,” it represents a variation on the “edge of chaos” literature. The author sets out his organizing metaphor in the first chapter, where he draws a contrast between the organization of hunter-gatherer tribes versus the organization of herding societies. He asserts that hunter- gatherers were characterized by an absence of hierarchy, emergent strategy, cooperative values, open communication, shared visions and stable structures, while the herders were characterized by possessions, breakdown of communication and emergence of hierarchy. Although the author does not invoke complexity, it is clear that many of the characteristics that he attributes to hunter-gatherers are often associated with complex systems. He attributes the ills of modern corporate organizations to their transformation from hunter-gatherers into herders.

Chapter 2 counterposes the “learning organizations” of hunter- gatherers with the herders’ “performance organizations.” The key to this chapter is the author’s assertion that the main change from hunter- gatherers to herders is that mission becomes strategy, which in turn stultifies learning. Chapter 3 tells the story of Russell Steel, where the author worked, and of its organizational crisis and renewal through transformation from a performance organization into a learning organization. Chapter 4 reinforces that story with a self-admittedly “highly selective” retelling of the history of the Quakers and their industrial innovations, social organization and, eventually, social disorganization.

Chapter 5 emphasizes these points again through the concept of an “organizational ecocycle.” This is a device for combining the learning loop and the performance loop into a single picture: a figure eight on its side, which Hurst calls “the infinity loop.” This chapter uses the metaphor of reforestation to present phases in organizational change: strategic management, conservation, creative destruction, confusion, charismatic leadership, creative network, choice, and entrepreneurial action. Examples from Compaq and GE put flesh on this skeleton.

Chapters 6 and 7 assert the need for the manager to preempt crisis by creating chaos. The author gives some broad suggestions for how to do this, as well as more examples from recent corporate history that help to make those suggestions intelligible.

The main point of the book is the need for organizational renewal. The author’s key emphasis is that renewal means reconverting a performance organization back into a learning organization (assuming that it was a learning organization to start with). He emphasizes the need to excite the people in the enterprise, in order to draw from them an emotional commitment, and the need for shared principles drawn from the organization’s history.

These are valid points, and they will be evident to anyone who reads the book, so it is not necessary to stress them in this review. But a book reviewer has two tasks: to explain what the author wrote and to evaluate it. Let me turn now to the evaluation. As the merits of the book are obvious, I may be forgiven for pointing out here some of its shortcomings.

One troubling aspect of this book is the author’s tendency, which becomes more and more explicit as one progresses through the book, to treat the hunter-gatherer tribe as a complex organization. This is a useful rhetorical device for getting the reader to relate to desirable characteris-tics such as an absence of hierarchy and open communication. But it suggests an equation between complexity and the “mechanistic division of labor,” which, according to Emile Durkheim, one of the two founding fathers of modern sociology, is how primitive societies are organized. It distorts the history of human society.

This is important, because complexity science—which embodies profound insights into the nature of physical and social reality, including the engineering of change in organizations—is already subject to enough misunderstanding and even caricature. One key insight of complexity science is the need to recognize that complexity does not mean going back to something from the past, yet the author runs the risk of suggesting the need to return to a (nonexistent) Golden Age. It is not even the case in human anthropology that hunter-gatherers were always nomadic and herders always sedentary, as the author would have it. Nor is this objection merely “academic.” One consequent problem that directly affects the analogy with the corporate organization is that scarcity, conflict, and a hostile environment are all absent from the author’s description of hunter-gatherer society.

In addition, the author treats learning and performance as largely mutually exclusive, but any organization must be oriented towards both learning and performance, as this is what survival requires. An organization that only learns may not survive if it learns the wrong things, and one that performs may not survive if it fails to learn. At times, learning and performance can mean the same thing in practice. But the incorrect portrayal of hunter-gatherer tribes and herder societies at the outset of the book reinforces the false contrast.

This book is enjoyable to read and written in an accessible, even lively style. The use of landscape metaphors and the telling of stories make the principal points easy to understand. But even the stories do not make it evident how a manager might apply the book’s main points in his or her organization. In particular, the author fails to address the issue of creating incentive structures that might motivate the desired behavior in organizations.

This book may help some managers liberate their thinking. One hopes, however, that they will not take any of the metaphors too seriously. Because they are metaphors, they do not offer specific guidance in actual organizational contexts. The stories that are told are more vignettes than they are developed plots.

That said, the book it is very well produced. The composition is aesthetic, it has better indexes than many books from academic presses, and the bibliography is more than worthwhile. One ends up, however, wishing that this were more of a “how-to” than a “look-here” book. But that may have required more “theory” than the publisher was willing to countenance.


When asked to review David Hurst’s book Crisis and Renewal, I had mixed feelings. As an academic biologist, all I ever wanted to know about corporations was how to avoid them, isolated and protected from the world in my ivory tower. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the prospect of considering corporate and sociopolitical structure in terms of a complex adaptive system—a system that is dissipative, far from equilibrium, perhaps self-organizing, and clearly an evolving hierarchical structure. After all, an ecological community shares many structural similarities in space and time with a corporation. I can imagine analogous entities like primary producers/workers, primary consumers/the public at large, various levels of predator/upper management, and of course parasites. My initial trepidation allayed, I began my journey.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book is what I call the “same as it ever was” phenomenon (from the lyrics of David Byrne). To me, “same as it ever was” means a direct relationship between disparate levels of organization and structures, a kind of deja vu. As I read Hurst’s book, I was profoundly struck by the similarities in the case studies presented and biological nature. Change a few words here and there and I could very well have been reading a text on ecosystem structure. I scribbled feverishly in the margins, notes like “Geez, this is type three predator functional response,” “Looks like a case of overconnected collapse to an alternative state,” and “Just like the facilitative model of succession in ecological systems.” That similarities in structure exist regardless of the nature of the structure is at the root of what we now call complex systems.

This volume contains seven chapters that are largely standalone case studies, although it is clear that Hurst is weaving a complex story by tying together ideas in a progression of thought. He begins by discussing the sociopolitical structure of the Kalahari Bushman, a very clever device and reference point for the entire volume. The dynamics that developed as a function of overconnection, underconnection and a changing resource base provide a pivotal foundation for the evolution of socioeconomic and political structures. Indeed, as Hurst noted that “the Bushman’s story is our story,” I only wish that western society was a bit more like that of the Bushman, at least before their adoption of a more civilized way of life.

The plot of the book now thickens as Hurst blends the Bushman dynamic with the saga of an upstart organization through its transition to a mature structure. Most intriguing to me are the delay feedback loops, whose impact and action change as the organizational structure changes. As in ecological systems, a delayed feedback can lead to the crisis and renewal that form a focus of this book. Ecological systems are, of course, structures that have a history and that history shapes the face of nature observed in the present day. Interestingly, “you can’t get there from here” often applies and the system collapses, only to achieve a higher level of organization—a level of organization unattainable through any other ontological trajectory. This crisis and concomitant renewal appears to be a general theme of nature. Such dynamics define the very nature of the attractor analogous to Per Bak’s elegant sandpiles. So it is with the world of human institutions.

In ecological systems, succession of the community from simple to complex can be reset by forces such as disturbance and seasonality. Once reset, however, there is no guarantee that the system will move back to its pre-disturbance state. The course of redevelopment may very well fall on to a new trajectory governed by alternate attractors. The next two chapters consider just such a process with surprisingly similar dynamics, based on Hurst’s own experience of a hostile takeover during the early 1980s recession. This crisis or disturbance rippled throughout the organization, leading to near-catastrophic failure. Interestingly, a new structure emerged from the old akin to a higher level of organization arising from a collapse.

A similar tale follows with an examination of the English Civil War, industrialization, and the role played by the Quakers. I must admit having a renewed admiration for the Quakers after reading this chapter. The essential theme here is one of a cycle of crisis and renewal taking on the form of an recursive loop. Born of the crisis of the Civil War, a fragmented us-and-them society developed, allowing the Quakers to express an intact although oft-attacked network. Whether this state of society precipitated the Industrial Revolution is of course unclear, but it may very well have initiated its emergence in a timely fashion.

Much to my surprise and delight, Hurst noticed the similarities between ecological dynamics and the theme of his book. He next considers the cyclic nature of ecological forest succession, cyclic because of human exploitation, and applies these processes to the hunter-herder transformation of corporations such Compaq computers. Portions of the equation do not fit and Hurst notes that in N orth American management there is an element of the cycle missing. This missing link relates back to the renewal portion of the state space. Where is the missing link, and does it really exist?

The scheme presented in the final two chapters suggests a developmental flow from a performance-based entrepreneurial upstart to its inevitable institutionalization. Hurst convincingly argues that the system becomes sick under the sheer weight of the attractor, leading to an unadaptable crisis-prone entity. This essential feature ultimately leads to a collapse back to the learning loop, where new thought emerges. Hurst suggests an almost fractal-like structure where both learning and performance loops coexist simultaneously at all levels of scale. Crisis leads to renewal and there can be no yin without a yang. This realization suggests that the strategic introduction of crisis into an organization may be absolutely essential if the organization is to reach higher levels of organization.

I congratulate David Hurst for a thought-provoking and innovative discourse through a world alien to me. My previous view of business as that monolithic parasite of society has greatly changed, and I now see that nature, whether physical, biological, or socioeconomic, is all the same. Same as it ever was.