The road to organizational change is an odd one: both well travelled and unfamiliar at the same time. The intensity of resistance, the many bumps and potholes and the sense of isolation all too often lead one to surmise that the road is one seldom travelled. It is easy to assume that few have passed this way, and those that have had not too easy a time of it. Certainly no easier than ourselves as we face it today as if for the first time…
The capacity for effective organizational change shares many attributes with common sense: a feeling that it is all too uncommon, and lacking in widespread, rational logic. No subject has had more books written about it, yet still been so widely misunderstood and misapplied. The effectiveness of organizational change approaches appear on the surface to have no formula, pattern or framework for repeated success. Even among the purported and often self-styled ‘gurus’ there is no one practitioner that has been able to maintain a sustained reputation for success in the field. Movements have come and gone; fads have emerged and with equal rapidity faded into the mists of embarrassing memory. We look on them with the same sense of discomfort as the first time we asked someone we ‘really liked’ out on a date: awkwardly, sweaty-palmed and with the nagging feeling that success, if attained at all, was fleeting and insubstantial.
No question endures more, has been thought of as much, and has been answered with such variance, as of the role of grassroots participation in creating successful, sustained and meaningful organizational change. Do we dictate, or do we facilitate? Is corporate success attained through the brilliant insight and forceful guidance of a select few, or the participation and widespread consensus and commitment of the many? Is it the responsibility of senior management to direct and mandate, or to influence, facilitate and guide?
To look at the industry is to find no easy answers. In a corporate environment that lionizes the blunt and more than ruthless approach of ‘Neutron’ Jack Welch and ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlop, you have an equal number of proponents of ‘servant’ leadership, participative decision making and self-managed teams. Both models argue financial, corporate and market valuation successes. Which begs the question of just who is right?
The answer will not be easy. There are too many proponents, too many myths, and too much misguided, untested, yet devoutly believed philosophy for us to emerge from this argument unscathed. Yet the need for an answer is both palpable and growing in importance. Organizations are at a crossroads, with an uncertain path before them: Do they answer to the market? Their customers? Their board members? Their employees? Their conscience?
At a time where the need is greatest, the answers have gone away. In the late ‘80s we had Total Quality Management. In Search of Excellence. Strategic planning. Peter Drucker. The ‘90s launched with re-engineering. Tony Robbins. The 7 Habits. Today, every author wants to launch the next fad. Every consultant wants to be the next guru. Every business leader wants to be on the next Fortune cover. Clarity has been replaced with chaos, obfuscation and greed.
In the absence of a clear path forward, a clear mandate of performance, and a clear mechanism to drive organizational change, we stumble from fad to fad, guru to guru, catchphrase to pithy aphorism. All of which suggests that we seek most is participation, involvement, community and involvement. And yet we remove ourselves further from meaningful commitment, participation and attachment. The social contract has been torn up. The man in the grey flannel suit has been replaced by the corporate free agent.
Over the next few weeks, this column will focus on the models for organizational change, in an attempt to resolve the conundrum of how to secure effective, meaningful and lasting change an organization – from the top, or from the bottom? By executive fiat, or negotiated consensus? What works, and why?
While a definitive answer may yet prove elusive, we will all be better off for at least asking the question and attempting to establish a reasoned insight into the issues, enablers and stumbling blocks of successful change.
The implications are far reaching. Dissatisfaction has emerged as a general state of being: with ourselves, our spouses and families, our organizations and our governments. While the frustration continues to grow, the answers to how change can be achieved and how the will to initiate the process can be crystallized become increasingly elusive.