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Managing change from top to bottom

MOST management books are messianic. "Do as described here," goes the message, "and you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams." The approach adopted by George Binney and Colin Williams, though, is about as far removed from this as it is possible to get.

Instead this pair of polymaths, based at Ashridge Management College in Hertfordshire, nod in the direction of the "May we spare a few moments of your time to put our point of view?" school.

There are no rigid prescriptions, although they do make extensive use of earlier work looking at management in the new-style National Health Service, but their book is probably no less persuasive for that.

The basic idea behind Leaning into the Future is that "change programmes" are not working because those responsible for them either concentrate too much on driving them from the top down or set too much store by the liberal-sounding bottom-up approach. The authors' belief is that neither is right, with the result that there needs to be greater emphasis on combining the two.

It sounds like a classic British compromise. But if one considers that many people involved with management are taking the view that there is no longer any one answer to a particular problem, it makes more than a little sense.

This hybrid is the Leaning into the Future of the title. It is a combination of the leading that is central to the top-down approach and the learning that is involved in the bottom-up route. "Successful leaders in change combine leading and learning: they lead in such a way that teaming is encouraged; they learn in a way that informs and guides those who seek to lead," write Binney and Williams.

So much for the basic tenet; it is difficult to tell if it has any more validity than the single-minded approaches its proponents seek to have it replace.

Where the authors will score with the more cynical is in jousting with some of today's received wisdom.

Such as why it is that every generation believes it is coping with unprecedented levels of change; such as the notion of "managing change" that this belief has spawned, and which has itself given rise to a sub-profession of "change managers". But this willingness to challenge a few principles is not the only point of departure for Binney and Williams. In this context, it is tempting to see the length of the book (a mere 175 pages, including the index) as a deliberate counterbalance to the much weightier tomes that float in increasing numbers across the Atlantic.

And let us not forget the tone. When was the last time a management book's conclusion contained such sentiments as the following: "We have no wish to foist our ideas on others, nor to pretend that they are THE answer to change."

Or, "We offer Leaning into the Future not as a unique solution but as one way of understanding change in organisations. It is a perspective that makes sense of our experience and guides the way we go about our work. We hope it helps you too."

q 'Leaning into the Future' is published by Nicholas Brealey at pounds 16.99.