Change Management and Simulated Annealing

At work, a number of us were recently trained on a new CRM (customer relationship management) system. This got me thinking about the management problem of leading a large organization from one set of processes and tools to another. Sometimes this means management wants to introduce better practices and procedures to every one in a truly dysfunctional (or at least sub-optimally-functioning) organization; sometimes it is a desire to propagate good practices from one part of the organization to the rest. This reminded me of an optimization approach in computer science called simulated annealing.

A Wikipedia article on the annealing process in metallurgy and glass-blowing states:

annealing is heating a piece until its temperature reaches a stress-relief point, that is, a temperature at which the glass is still too hard to deform, but is soft enough for internal stresses to ease. The piece is then allowed to heat-soak until its temperature is even throughout; the time necessary for this varies depending on the type of glass and thickness of the thickest section. The piece is then slowly cooled at a predetermined rate until its temperature is below a critical point, at which it can no longer generate internal stresses, and then the temperature can safely be dropped to room temperature. This relieves the internal stresses, resulting in a piece which should last for many years.

A Wikipedia article on change management states:

An early model of change developed by Kurt Lewin (1951) described change as a three-stage process. The first stage he called "unfreezing". It involved overcoming inertia and dismantling the existing "mind set". Defense mechanisms have to be bypassed. In the second stage the change occurs. This is typically a period of confusion. We are aware that the old ways are being challenged but we do not have a clear picture to replace them with yet. The third and final stage he called "refreezing". The new mind set is crystallizing and one's comfort level is returning back to previous levels.

Wikipedia also has an article on simulated annealing, an optimization technique from computer science. It is inspired by and draws its name from the physical technique for optimizing a material to its global minimum energy state:

technique involving heating and controlled cooling of a material to increase the size of its crystals and reduce their defects. The heat causes the atoms to become unstuck from their initial positions (a local minimum of the internal energy) and wander randomly through states of higher energy; the slow cooling gives them more chances of finding configurations with lower internal energy than the initial one.

It’s fascinating to see almost identical concepts and terminology occurring in two very different areas of study, and at radically different scales. In material science, the desire is to increase the size and quality of atomic crystals, reducing internal stresses and creating a harder material. Annealing raises the temperature of a material, allowing its atoms to “wander randomly”. Slow cooling from this state results in the desired structure. In change management, the desire is (usually) to propagate good practices uniformly throughout a human organization, reduce infighting, and create an organization that is stronger, more capable of achieving its goals. Change management involves “unfreezing” and dismantling the existing structure, which results in a period of confusion. During the “refreezing,” a new mindset crystallizes, and the comfort level, globally, becomes higher than ever.

Tags: Business, Philosophy, Technical

Updated at: 9 November 2005 12:11 AM