The US National Park Service: Organizational Adaptation in an Era of Complexity, Uncertainty, and Change

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Bozana, Frank Houweling, Iris, Koen

Authors: A.C. Mills

Publication Year: 2014


Categories: Organizational Change, Adaptive Management, Change


Worldwide, conservation agencies and organizations are facing extraordinary complexity and rapid, turbulent change in social ecological systems. Some conservation agencies are having more difficulty adapting to a changing environment. These are organizations with a strict goal or culture, and top-down, hierarchical government bureaucracies. Even in an attempt to be adaptive, large bureaucratic organizations tend towards stability, because organizations are inclined to institutionalize what has worked in the past and aim for predictability. The NPS is an example of such an organization. The primary research question in this study is whether and how the NPS can transform as an organization in order to adapt to a complex, changing, and uncertain environment. To address this problem and better understand how managers perceive the ideas in Revisiting Leopold , twenty-three semi-structured interviews were conducted with managers across the NPS. In particular, this study evaluates the events, patterns, structures, cultures, and mental models at play within the organization. The responses recognized that the environment was complex and was changing fast. They argue that, to better cope with the complex environment, multiple thing have to change. Firstly, the organization will need a shared ideology. Next to that, they need organizational change. NPS needs a shared vision about the implementation of the concepts in Revisiting Leopold Colwell, R., Avery, S., Berger, J., Davis, G. E., Hamilton, H., Lovejoy, T., ... & Machlis, G. (2012). Revisiting Leopold: resource stewardship in the national parks. National Park System Advisory Board Science Committee, Washington, DC, USA. Thomas Kuhn (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press. argues that change does not happen gradually but rather, a new scientific regime replaces an existing scientific regime when it becomes evident that the existing approach is inadequate. NPS appears to still be stuck in it’s regime, and is not motivated enough to start applying changes. Maybe, this is because they are not yet confronted with a real crisis. To become a more adaptive organization, several steps have to be overcome. Firstly, NPS needs to learn to examine their organization systemically. They should identify the short-and long-term variables at play, the relationships between those variables, and how they operate at different scales. This will result in a deeper understanding of the organization. Based on this information, they can define which changes they want to make. NPS should apply changes to so-called “leverage points”. These are parts of the organization where some effort will result in much greater changes throughout the system.

Critical Reflection

This article is a nice addition to because it is an example of a case study in which the adaptive cycle is a very powerful model to describe existing organizational tendencies, and an even more powerful model to explain the modifications that should be made to make the organization better adaptive to the changing environment in which it is active. Mills describes how the NPS is at the end of the release phase, and in need of a renewal. This renewal should be fast and drastic. The changes to the organization should be drastic enough to change the goals and culture of the organization, and enable the organization to change to the ever-changing environment in which they work. Mills makes two notable contributions. Firstly, she identifies the need for organizations to accept the fact that they will need to keep changing in the future. To be able to do so effectively, organizations should apply transcending paradigms. The paradigm of the organization should constantly be in development, and thus resemble the constantly changing environment. I think this is a good starting point for an adaptive organization, because the paradigm used inside the organization influences all decisions being made. By constantly adapting the paradigm, the organization might be able to change to the environment in the future. The second notable contribution of Mills emphasises that change often not comes gradually. Often, large changes are required because of a “paradigm shift”. Mills explains how such large and fast changes should be made. To be able to change the organization drastically, we should look at the organization as a system existing of many components. We should then apply changes to the components that of course are applicable to change, but also closely influence other components in the system. If we change such an important component, for example the structure of information flows, the change transcends to other parts of the system and by that the change will result in more and larger changes. This why these components are called leverage points. They leverage change to a higher level. The information flow example also serves to make a second point. Based on this leverage point, we can say that good and adaptive information management can strongly influence the adaptivity of the organization as a whole. Because of this, Business Information Systems are closely interlinked with the adaptive cycle. For example, an organization which has an adaptive knowledge organization system can easily apply this knowledge and react to changes in the environment.


Bozana, Frank Houweling, Iris, Koen