BOOK REVIEW / Practical change in telling sentences: Succeeding With Change; Tony Eccles: McGraw-Hill, pounds 19.95

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The Independent Online
Countless management consultants and academics are making a fortune out of the idea that business is changing as never before. The sheer pace of it all demands a whole new discipline, they say, and so we have 'change management'.

This is necessary because even though organisations acknowledge the need to change, they are frequently unable to. Change management - the 'soft' side of altering strategy - is seen as the method of finding the route through the maze of organisational culture that is reckoned to elude outside consultants and so delay progress.

It all sounds convincing, and attractive, except that there is little evidence that this approach works much better than just driving the changes through. Indeed, the central thesis of this book - subtitled 'Implementing Action-driven Strategies' - is that implementation is not really as difficult as has been made out.

Tony Eccles, professor of strategic management at London Business School and leader of senior management programmes for several leading companies, does not dismiss difficulties with implementation out of hand. Acknowledging that it is possible for executives to dream up appropriate strategies only to be unable to put them into practice, he cites the example of a global company that had to appoint a new chairman and chief executive before it could convert endless high-quality strategy debates into decisions that created future prosperity.

Instead, he urges a little positive thinking and - with the aid of several 'core propositions' supported by 'logic and evidence' - seeks to demonstrate the practicality of making radical shifts in the way organisations are run.

At the top of his list of propositions are such ideas as 'implementation is not always complicated or difficult to accomplish' and 'implementation can take place quickly'. But perhaps more important in view of the vogue for delegation and empowerment are traditional- sounding saws, such as 'concentrated power is an aid to rapid implementation' and 'empowerment does not reduce top management's responsibility for the performance of the organisation'.

As he makes clear, Mr Eccles' prime task is to help managers - in particular, that increasingly small band stuck in the middle. Drawing on his own consultancy assignments, research projects and interviews with top managers across a range of businesses, he contends that middle managers want to know their place in the scheme of things and, from that, judge what they should do, while top managers want to demonstrate their leadership rather than give it away.

Aware that the range of situations and conflicting evidence make empirical findings about implementation difficult, he is careful not to claim to be overturning other beliefs. Nevertheless, his 'tell it as you see it' approach - evident in such remarks as 'merger and acquisition studies do not suggest that incoming owners should put on kid gloves and remain gently sensitive to the previous culture for years' - implies a superiority over thinkers.

This concentration on the practical is likely to endear him to his chosen audience, however. Such an audience is also likely to be impressed by the orderly progress from discussion of six contexts of management-inspired change, including takeover and injection of new management, to the setting out of 14 factors - under four categories - that underpin successful change in these different contexts.

That this rather prescriptive approach does not pale can be put down to two factors. First, Mr Eccles' past as a copywriter serves him well in helping to produce a telling phrase. Hence, there is 'the Spartacus challenge' - name a big commercial organisation that has carried out a significant change as a result of a successful revolt of the slaves - and 'the Rule of Proportionate Responsibility' - the more senior you are, the more responsibility you must take.

Second, his text is peppered with the views of the likes of Sir Alastair Morton, co-chairman of Eurotunnel, Neville Bain, chief executive of Coats Viyella, and GEC's Lord Weinstock.

But pithy as these comments are, they rarely strike at the heart of the matter in the way that one of the author's own sentences does. Warning of the need to be sceptical of attitude change programmes, he says: 'Structure, reward and performance criteria and key appointments are far more potent and immediate weapons for the management to use to galvanise an organisation.' Consultants beware.