Change and change again

Transformation is the concept that middle managers must get to grips with in 1998, writes Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
If You are a middle manager, the chances are that 1997 was pretty tough for you. But any hopes you might have harboured about 1998 being any easier must surely be dashed. Thanks to senior executives' continuing belief in globalisation combining with fierce competition, plus politicians' determination to keep a lid on inflation, life is set to get more, rather than less, tense.

And - amid all the management jargon - the word "transformation" is probably going to be prominent. Though, to most of us, this term conjures up a change in personality or appearance, in management circles it appears with the likes of "continuous improvement" and "ongoing self-renewal".

Indeed, thanks largely to the efforts of an organisation called Gemini Consulting, it has become a management consultancy concept all of its own. But then we should not be surprised - the management consultants have another concept that they talk about a lot these days: "change management". The idea is that change is such a permanent state of affairs that it can be dealt with only by change specialists.

In a situation where change is less a transitory thing that comes along every now and again than something that is almost part of the social fabric, it is understandable that management thinkers should see a need for a different type of executive. A decade ago, academics Noel Tichy and Mary Anne Devanna christened this superman "The Transformational Leader".

Now reissued as A Wiley Management Classic, the book of that title (published in paperback by John Wiley & Sons, pounds 11.99), is a little dated in parts. For example, it is difficult to imagine that there were worries about the ability of hi-tech companies such as Hewlett Packard and Intel to remain prime drivers of the US economy. And closer to home, it can be seen that Sir John Harvey-Jones's efforts at ICI were more a lull before the storm than a springboard for greatness.

But it is possible to accept that such misreadings of the signs only indicate the nature of modern competition and acknowledge that the authors have much to teach those still up to their necks in the chaos that a decade of constant flux has produced for all sorts of organisations.

One of their more salient points is that, while the book focuses on such heroes of the US business cadre as Jack Welch, of General Electric, and Lee Lacocca, sometime head of Chrysler, there is a "need for transformational leadership at all levels of the organisation". Since writing the book, Tichy and Devanna, who recently died, have worked with thousands of middle managers using the framework that they have developed.

"It works as a guide and framework for leadership throughout an organisation," they say, stressing how GE, for example, has used it to help new recruits understand the approach being adopted by Welch as well as to come to grips with their immediate workplace and their own personal challenges.

This framework comes down to breaking a rope (the authors' metaphor) into three strands - technical design problems, political allocation problems and cultural value problems.

The first group covers the arranging of people, money and technical resources so that environmental threats are minimised and opportunities are maximised, with strategic planning, setting goals and designing appropriate management systems among the tools used in finding solutions.

The second concerns the allocation of power and resources, often in a way that lacks systematic organisation. This is where "the tension between organisational goals and objectives and individual aspirations most often comes into play".

The last category relates to those things that hold organisations together. As Tichy and Devanna write: "No organisation can write a set of procedures so complete that they specify people's behaviour in all situations. Consequently, organisations are held together in part by normative glue." For example, the common thread among the companies described in the Peters and Waterman best-seller In Search of Excellence is, they suggest, the ability to pass on their values to their employees and so help to inform decision- making at all levels.

So far, so obvious. But, helpful as all this may be in assisting middle managers with understanding their place in the constantly shifting universe and even in mobilising those who work alongside them, it does not really go to the nub of transformational leadership.

A transformation does not occur simply through somebody in a suit standing up and announcing it. There must be a vision. Moreover, it has to amount to more than a few well-chosen words such as "world-class", "customer- centred" and "values". It has to be a clear view of the future articulated in such a way that everybody knows what the chairman is talking about. "Leaders are responsible for the creation of a vision, and the vision provides the basic energy source for moving the organisation toward the future." And it is one of the enduring mysteries of business how some people can come up with such visions and articulate them, and others cannot. Who would have agreed with McDonald's founder, Ray Kroc, that there was a multinational corporation to be built out of the cheap and speedy supply of hamburgers?