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Change management - a failure of structure and denial


Guest articles > Change management - a failure of structure and denial


by: Jim Leis

I spent the first 10 years of my professional career valuing and turning around failing companies. That kind of experience gave me a slanted view of how profitable organizations run. For instance, I naturally assumed companies approached their business with a sense of urgency. Boy, was I wrong. I also assumed change management was the daily fare upon which companies dined. That is partly right. But not in the way I thought it was.

Turning around a company is all about change. Obviously structures and processes cannot remain as they are since the company is failing. As it turns out, not many executives know how to diagnose and heal an ailing organization, although there are a great deal of professionals who know how to sell off the body parts. Even more enlightening, most executives cannot tell you exactly why their company is profitable.

People versus structure

And that is a vital clue about how staid and unchanging most companies are; they are riding on their brands and market share as if the world will never change. They view their organizational structure as carefully interlocking processes and departments, making adjustments through formal technology requests or re-engineering teams. You know, like you would go about fixing a car or an office tower, with bid requests and time estimates.

The fundamental problem with this third person approach is that organizations are teams of people, with cultures and beliefs and emotions and opinions. Further, the executives and experts rarely know more than the teams that spend their careers working in those departments and processes, talking to customers, delivering the products and reacting to adversity. Change of any kind is not something you do to an organization, it is something you facilitate. It is the patient that must do the healing, not the doctor.

Permanence and denial

In a failing firm, it is regrettably almost always the case that most of the management staff need to be relieved of their duties. It isn't because everyone is angry that they drove the company into the ditch. Besides, they have experience and connections which could be useful in reviving the firm. But they end up being in the way. It turns out that virtually all of them are in denial in a Kubler-Ross kind of way, even with the bank knocking on the door and the losses piling up one nasty quarter after another.

You see, they want things to stay the same. They refuse to believe their company is dying. They believe that if the economy changes or a customer comes along, everything will be fine. Meanwhile, their sick organization lays on its death bed untreated and gasping for air. When friends and doctors refuse to believe the patient is sick, they have to be asked to leave the hospital room.

I have developed a method of dealing with that denial, including recommendations of formal counseling. I have been through the loss of a loved one and a failing firm is no different, especially for those who have dedicated their careers to it. After all, organizations are alive even if we sadly do not treat them that way. Organizations have a personality, a culture, a life view, and a purpose. They have a conscience, a fitness level, and a sense of who they are no matter how battered or worn.

Fundamental organizational change involves throwing out all those textbook 'third party' approaches. They assume if you lead just right, you communicate just right, you appeal to everyone just right, and 'empower' folks just right, you can change them. No wonder change management has a 70% failure rate. Because that is not how change occurs.

Internalization, autonomy, and constant change

Change occurs because people internalize their issues, and decide to do something about it. Change requires inclusion and honesty and empathy. Cognitive therapy texts in this sense are more insightful than change management books. Because change is first and last something you do to yourself. No psychologist changes you. No leader changes you. That method only begets resistance and cognitive dissonance. The truth is, we change ourselves. And that is the same way it is with teams and organizations.

Teams change because they know they can improve. Teams change because they internalize their destiny. Teams change because they realize that the status quo is not statism, that the feeling of permanence is only an illusion, that our lives are always changing, and that change is actually an integral ingredient of a healthy, productive life. Teams change because they embrace their responsibilities and lose their fear.

There is no permanence. There is only continual improvement and adaptation. And after that idea has sunk in, and after that culture is embraced, nothing can stop a team or an organization from moving forward in a constant climate of self-induced change. Not even leadership enveloped in self-invested control or denial.

Further Reading

Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. Scribner, 1997. On resolving the stages of grief.

Burns, David D. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Revised and Updated. Reprint. Harper, 1999. The bible of cognitive thinking, suitable for motivating individuals and teams.

Jim Leis has held consulting, technical, and executive positions in systems design, strategy, finance, and business development. He focuses on optimizing profitability in failing and profitable firms. Currently he is writing a book on the ability of organizational structure to increase both reliability and innovation. He can be reached through the Leis Network website.

Contributor: Jim Leis

Published here on: 28-Nov-10

Classification: Business, Change


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