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Change Is No Change At All
by Peter Block
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by Cathy Kramer
Business News Briefs
for a Change
to the Editor
When Change Is No Change At All
by Peter Block
We are in a period where change management and organizational
transformation have become big business. The problem is that when these
ideas become mainstream and profitable, they tend to lose integrity. Hundreds
of millions of dollars are still being spent on culture change and reengineering
and restructuring large organizations. This work is sold on the wings of
reform and improvement, but I think the opposite is true. Large change efforts
are misnamed and much more likely to reinforce the existing culture than
to rearrange it.
Modern efforts to change the internal operation of organizations
are a reminder of the antitrust and industrial reform movement of the early
1900's. Teddy Roosevelt is credited with breaking up monopolies, but in
fact he was working to maintain the interests of the large, powerful corporations
and to quiet the growing pressure for social reform among the working class.
Even though - in the name of competition - big steel, oil and railroads
were divided into smaller pieces, the process actually reinforced and legitimized
the power of the industrialists. The new, smaller organizations still dominated
everything around them. The industries had in fact supported their own cosmetic
restructuring, they had joined in the rhetoric of change, and yet the real
effect was to cause the energy for reform to evaporate without any shift
in power or real change in the conditions of work. Howard Zinn reported
in his book "A People's History of the United States," that the
antitrust effort "has apparently been carrying on its work with the
purpose of securing the confidence of well-intentioned business men, members
of the great corporations..." Zinn continues, "While the 'original
impetus' for reform came from protesters and radicals, in the current century,
particularly on the federal level, few reforms were enacted without the
tacit approval, if not the guidance, of the large corporate interests."
Cultural change efforts of the 1990's, including reengineering, organization
development and "self management," have some of the same qualities.
They are sponsored by top management, promise benefits to all employees
and often change very little. Some elements of cosmetic change:
- Most change efforts are decided by those at the very
top and call for reengineering the work of those below. I know of few executives
who sign the check for a restructuring process and then agree that the
effort should begin by reassessing whether their own job really adds value,
and suggest that it might be combined with the job of several other senior
- Many transformation strategies call for creating a common
language, establishing common standards and measures, and providing a universal
implementation process for people at all levels. Even when the substance
of the change uses the language of empowerment, teamwork and personal spiritual
development, the belief in consistency and control from the top and center
is business as usual.
- Advocates of greater local control and more individual
freedom begin the conversation with a discussion of empowerment boundaries,
limits of authority, matrices which define what decisions are made by what
job titles at what level. The widespread belief that people are incapable
of using their freedom without guidance and rules is never challenged.
What particularly surprises me is that it is the trainers and organization
development consultants who argue the loudest for the need for more tools
and more definition before workers are "ready" to exercise their
- A final expression of patriarchy clothed in the skin
of change management is the willingness to keep investing in individual
training. There is widespread evidence that individual training does not
lead to a change in organizational behavior. The subtle message in training
as a centerpiece of strategy is that the problem with the organization
lies within the mindset and behavior of individuals. The training investment
is a substitute for looking closely at the political structure of the organization
and the willingness to genuinely place resources, purpose and control in
the hands of those doing the work. Too often the only major investment
is in the training itself and there is little energy and money left for
implementation and substantive reform.
If we want genuine reform, we need to question the real
effect of large, monolithic, system-wide change processes. They mostly serve
the economic interests of the professional change agents.
Executives should stop signing large consulting contracts. Genuine transformation
has to be self-inflicted to be credible. Hiring third parties to transform
second parties is really a form of manipulation. Employees have the capacity
to change their workplace if they are encouraged to get connected to each
other and if they become literate in the problems facing the business. Common
processes, common standards, common language, common training, undermine
reform by carrying the message that the top and center know best and that
change must be controlled, driven and "drilled down" to overcome
resistance and be effective.
Carlos Fuentes, author and former Mexican ambassador, makes
a wonderful statement that can be applied to organizations as well as governments,
when he says, "...democratic governments know that the best way to
control a revolutionary movement is to create it. Instead of embodying it,
... they invent and control it and thus have an enemy they count on."
Change management practices that rely on top manager sponsorship, rely on
one answer and are targeted to change the behavior of others, are not changes