Sunday, January 30, 2011

On the Fault Line: Living at the edge of Organizational Change

Changing organizations can be a thrilling, all consuming, life enhancing experience. It is not easy, and often it may look quite scary. But, if one's convinced about the pay-off, not just in money terms but the value one would create, every bit of the trouble seems worth it.

But, then, there is nothing straightforward about it. As I told a colleague recently, everything is culturally grounded. This is something management gurus often don't get it, because they are not inside an organization. It is often easy for consultants to see and do things to change an organization, because they see and work from outside. If they have the mandate, they can follow the cold logic of management rationality. However, this de-personalizes the organization, as the logic employed can be only of money and shareholder returns: Such re-engineering can only end up with a narrow focus on stock value at the expense of everything else.

Changing from inside, though difficult, can be more rewarding, in that sense. The change agents inside, and I would like to claim that it is my job title currently, need to work with the whole organization and not just its resources. They need to preserve the image of the organization as seen from inside while changing it at step by step. This is a slow and painful process indeed. But, successful change initiatives are always that.

As Tony Blair recently said, people complain when you propose change, they resist when you implement it and feel nothing changed when it's done. The measure of success of a change initiative is not how much it sticks out, but how normal it seems to have changed. This may be one of the key differences between consultant-led change and change from inside.

However, change from inside has many challenges and I know quite a few of them already. First, the mandate: The change agents inside the organization will always struggle in the face of issues such as vintage (length of service) and understanding of the language spoken in the organization. So, people who don't want change will always invoke the spectre of mayhem if things are done differently, and they will exclude the change agent by speaking their language which a newcomer may have little experience of. Consultants face no such problem, as their very appointment gives them the mandate and their pay forces the issue that their time should not be wasted. But, the internal change agents usually have to devote time to understand the language of the organization and earn vintage, in the way of proving themselves in securing difficult tasks in a new way. Once that is done, they can possibly propose the alternative model with some confidence.

However, change is never easy and it is important to form collaborations. I use the word collaboration rather than politics because how the two words are perceived, but they are essentially the same. Organizations are not governed merely by a set of rules, they are a collection of people governed by collaborative formation among them. When these formations are too rigid, one has a problem of faction and vested interests, and the change agent's job is more difficult. Because, change usually does not come through armies, a set of defined people marching lockstep through an organization; rather, it comes through liquid networks, of people forming groups and alliances on various specific issues, though with the vision of the same end point. This flexibility is important, and so is the change agent's ability to work across a range of people and possibilities.

I have also come to realize that mandate usually comes from inside rather than outside, and one should not too obsessed, at least at the beginning, about the lack of mandate. In a way, one has to earn it. Instead, one should look for intent, in the top management, to change and seize that as an opportunity. The next step after spotting the intent is showing respect and understanding, as this will tell everyone that you are not a ruthless, self-interested operator but one committed to a shared vision. Third, one needs to understand the language of the organization. Different organizations have different yardsticks. I remember arguing with my supervisor in one of my first jobs when she told me that it does not look good that I pack my bags exactly at 5:30 and leave. My point was that I finish work in time; she was trying to tell me that I needed to hang around with my colleagues. I didn't understand then, as I was a cocky youngster. Now, it is much clearer: The organization saw commitment through time spent at office, with colleagues. In my mind, this is an example of organizational language, which everyone must learn to succeed.

In a way, most of these principles work for any kind of change, not just in business context. Change from outside, like Bush's adventures in Babylon, usually does not work. Despite their fame and fortune, consulting companies are far less successful in changing companies than the internal change agents. Hardly any management guru can claim the success of a Lou Gerstner or Steve Jobs in any kind of company. Besides, as I would like to believe, the change agent can be either the doer or the thinker, as long as she or he is able to form the liquid networks that is needed to take the change agenda forward.

I shall end with a personal note. I am in the middle of effecting an exciting change agenda in my personal life, and at work. This isn't necessary, but I have decided to commit myself to change, through learning and understanding other alternatives in life, while I work for change itself. This double change commitment isn't easy, but I would like to believe that these few years can turn to the most rewarding years in my life. Change is painful, but usually resurrecting ourselves at certain times is the most enjoyable thing we can do at times.

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