Watch out for Change Busters


Watch Out for Change Busters

By Mark A. Abramson

Change is the organizational mantra of the 1990s. But change initiatives frequently fall short of their ambitious goals and leave disappointment in their wake. Explanations of these failures fall into three camps: The execution factor, the human factor and the organizational factor.

The Execution Factor

Eileen Shapiro, in Fad Surfing in the Boardroom, and Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley, in Why Teams Don't Work, blame failure on the execution of change initiatives. Both titles are misleading, because their messages are positive. Shapiro devotes chapters to all the buzzwords of the 1990s: vision, mission, culture, empowerment, continuous improvement, customers, strategy, total quality and reengineering. While each chapter begins with a tongue-in-cheek buzzword definition, the sections present good explanations of the intent behind each so-called fad. Failure does not lie in the concept but in the execution of the concept.The bottom line is that management is still an art. Shapiro says there is no substitute for good judgment and courage on the part of executives. What is new is the sheer number of techniques-often advertised as panaceas-to assist managers. Avoid the temptation, Shapiro warns, to implement every new technique and then operate on autopilot.

Robbins and Finley present a similar conclusion on teamwork. They acknowledge a growing need for teams, but they also document many problems that can arise. The book discusses the dangers of misplaced goals, confused objectives, unresolved roles, bad decision-making, wrong policies and procedures, faulty visions and communication shortfalls. This list of hazards is useful to any organization contemplating the move to teams.

While teamwork is certainly a buzz word and can be called a fad, Robbins and Finley conclude, "the idea of teams isn't going away, because it's simply not possible-it's simply not affordable-to return to the days of multiple supervisory levels." The challenge then becomes helping people learn how to work together and to serve as effective team members. Teamwork, like other change initiatives, is not easy or self-propelled. It requires hard work, training and fine-tuning.

The Human Factor

The human factor camp argues that initiatives fall short because of failure to understand the human dimension of change. The downfall of managers is twofold-failure to understand themselves and failure to understand those within their organization.

Tracy Goss, in The Last Word on Power, says managers must reinvent themselves before reinventing their organizations. The concept of "transformational leadership" presented by Goss grows out of the work of Werner Erhard, founder of the Est self-development program of the 1960s. Leaders must acquire a new kind of power-the power to consistently make the impossible happen.

Executive reinvention, as described by Goss, is a series of radical transformations in which "you put at stake the success you've become for the power of making the impossible happen." Leaders can reinvent themselves by redefining the reality of the past, present and future.

While each reader will respond differently to Goss' concepts, few can dispute the powerful idea of executives better understanding themselves and becoming more effective leaders. Executives with leadership skills will have a greater chance of improving their organizations.

Douglas K. Smith, in Taking Charge of Change, shifts the emphasis to individuals within organizations. Smith argues that executives have not fully understood the dynamics of change at the individual level. Taking Charge of Change is based on three convictions:

  • People-not systems, strategies, or structures-change skills, behaviors, and relationships.
  • No one can take responsibility for another person's behavior change.
  • Most people change skills, behavior, and working relationships when concrete and specific performance consequences depend on their doing so.

Smith argues that the leaders who make the biggest difference in today's organization are those who figure out how to manage people through periods of change. The key is developing compelling performance challenges which motivate individuals to learn and change how they work. The primary objective of change should be improved performance that drives new behavior and new learning.

Everybody in an organization views events, activities and actions differently, Samuel Culbert concludes in Mind-Set Management. The key to organizational success is for managers to find out how people in their organizations see and interpret events. Without this knowledge, managers are unable to give effective advice on either individual or organizational performance. Culbert advises, "If you want to manage effectively, stop trying to get people to be what you want them to be. Engage them where they actually are."

Mind-Set Management presents ways in which managers can find out where their employees actually are. It is essential for managers to understand the interests and motivations that drive participation in an organization, Culbert says.

A new breed of leader is emerging to fill a crucial need in major change situations, according to Jon Katzenbach, author of Real Change Leaders. Katzenbach, who co-authored the 1993 business bestseller The Wisdom of Teams with Douglas Smith, believes the key to successful change is developing a mass of RCLs-real change leaders.

These change leaders, according to Katzenbach and his McKinsey & Co. associates, think and act differently than traditional middle managers. RCLs are "individuals who lead initiatives that influence dozens to hundreds of others to perform differently-and better-by applying multiple leadership and change approaches."

The Organizational Factor

The final camp emphasizes organizational dynamics, the focus of Robert E. Hardy and Randy Schwartz in The Self-Defeating Organization. Hardy and Schwartz say organizational pathologies undermine change. The character of an organization is defined by its core belief systems and its actions, the authors say. This core belief system serves as a source of guidance and helps the enterprise avoid low performance and its consequences. Organizations get in trouble when they pursue an expedient course of action in spite of-rather than because of-a long-standing core belief.

Hardy and Schwartz present several interesting models of self-defeating organizations. For example, the collectively depressed Maintenance Crew goes about its tasks with little enthusiasm, hope or energy and is governed by rules, policies and procedures. In contrast, the Funhouse Gang doesn't seem to be governed at all and is characterized by chaotic, urgent activity with people scrambling frantically to resolve problems caused by prior frantic activity. The Pep Squad relies on theatrics, flamboyance and high spirit to mask real concerns about performance. Faced with ominous present-day problems and clouded prospects for ongoing success, the Alumni Club seeks refuge in the organization's past glory days. The Cargo Cult justifies ongoing low performance and discontent on the grounds that circumstances will change dramatically in the future. All perpetuate a low-performance loop which leads to dysfunctional behavior such as blaming and minimizing.

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