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Failed Metaphors—The Fantasy of the Static Organization

Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, intoned, “Everything changes and nothing remains still... and... you cannot step twice into the same stream.” It is not just a metaphysical truth; it is a practical one for today’s businesses. Today’s organizations are less static than ever before; staff come and go faster due to shrinking job tenure and the end of “job for life” careers; much speedier information flows have demanded increased reaction times; local businesses have become less local, buffeted by events in faraway lands (for example, car dealers in Kansas affected by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).

The kind of change covered by change surveys is called programmatic change, the big CRM system, or the rollout of the new HR policy. In the last section, we saw that about half of programmatic change fails in some respect; what we did not yet consider was how much change that might be! Consider this observation from 2012 while teaching at the University of Wisconsin.

If ever a group of businesspeople represented Middle American business, this was it—25 middle-aged managers, from ranks of middle management, of middle-American, medium-sized companies. The middle of the middle of the middle of the middle. What does change look like away from the headline-grabbing failures and $100 million IT projects, smack in the middle of the business world? Our first task of the day was for the managers in attendance to list the change projects running in their companies. After 15 minutes, the whistle blew, and we counted: 585! Each company represented was running an average of more than twenty. The managers were then to “star” the projects in which they were involved: Those 25 managers were involved in 214 projects. These middle-American managers were under constant pressure from the day-to-day business of change—there was very little that was stable.

Another kind of change is even more prevalent than programmatic change, and that is continuous, nonprogrammatic change. These managers were affected by centrally driven, big programs as well as programs they initiated themselves (such as a departmental reorganization). They also were expected to continuously improve performance, help staff grow, make their processes more efficient, build new relationships, network, hire new people, and much more. Then, to add another layer of change, they were affected by change in other departments/divisions—what I call change backwash. A big change program in HR stretches HR’s capacity to serve the business. These managers’ experience at work was more or less constant change and its effects, constant pressure, and constant turmoil. The manager who “just keeps things running smoothly and doesn’t have to worry about change” is a fantasy, perhaps from a bygone era, but certainly not today. This also casts doubt upon the standard notion that management is about efficient running of the status quo and leadership is about change.9

The underlying paradigm, upon which almost all change models rest, is that change is episodic, a disruption to an otherwise static business. I cautiously predict the next decade will hasten the demise (a demise that has been predicted for some time) of the notion of a business as a mechanistic, static entity, with rigid structures, and punctuated by episodic major change. This old paradigm can be seen in two additional canonical (and I think highly inaccurate) change metaphors, Business as Usual (BAU) and the oldest change model, unfreeze, change, refreeze.10 The first of those metaphors suggests that there are things that are changing and things that are stable. The second of those implies that organizations are stable, and then you have to “unfreeze” them. There is no “frozen” in today’s businesses.

The above metaphors and models are sacred territory—rarely are they challenged. From a scientific point of view, metaphors are neither true, nor false—they are either helpful, leading us to consider things in a better light, or unhelpful. BAU, unfreezing, and “management is about efficient running of the status quo” are, I think, not just unhelpful, but harmful in three ways:

  1. Management education—In the way we train managers today, we do not equip them to manage change continuously. As we discuss more fully later, change management is thought of as a specific, discrete set of skills tucked away in a corner of a traditional MBA, or saved for later in management development programs.
  2. The role of the manager and the change specialist—Managing change is not a small subset of management and leadership; it may be the majority of management and leadership—and even if only 20 percent of a manager’s role, it may be 80 percent of her headaches. Change is every manager’s job every day. Managing change is too important to be outsourced to specialists.
  3. Manager mindset and cognitive dissonance—Teaching people that change is a disturbance to a stable status quo means that they compare their experience with that nonexistent ideal. Change frustrations arise because the world ought to conform to that ideal: stable and predictable. This leads to the widespread (and false) conviction that change must always be difficult.

The amount of change managers deal with, the high failure rates of programmatic change, and the constant challenges of continuous change suggest that that failed (or failing) change is the single largest preventable cost to business. Now we should ask why.

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