ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

November 1997


Quality Is No 'Easy Rider'
Accountability, Confrontation two keys to success at Harley-Davidson

Rebel With A Cause
Who is accountable for productive meetings.

Measure for Measure
Merrill Lynch relies on measurements for success and customer satisfaction


When Change Is No Change At All
by Peter Block

The Balance Sheet: Hidden Costs of Open Book Management
by Cathy Kramer


Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

Book Review

Letters 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 executives.
  • 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 freedom.
  • 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 at all.

Nov. '97 News for a Change | Email Editor
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