The ties that strangle change

Man is born free, but everywhere he's in suits. A management guru says companies are preaching flexibility while pigeon-holing staff
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One of the greatest difficulties facing graduates when they startwork is settling down. Parents, teachers and older colleagues try to prepare them for the real world of arriving for and leaving work at set times, or behaving and dressing in certain ways.

And even though corporations are buying up tiny ramshackle organisations run by scruffy computer nerds because they want to "harness their creativity", there is little effort to understand or explain why everybody else has to work in formal situations.

Given that organisations preach a language of chaos, flexibility and adaptability while actually urging conformity and rigidity, it is not surprising that many of them do not have much to show for all the changes they are forcing through.

The result of these contradictory forces, say Terry Finerty and Christie Franchi, consultants with Arthur Andersen, can be the creation of a lot of "displaced champions" - people who have become frustrated by trying to change things while all around them others are being made redundant or not given adequate support.

The answer, according to Meg Wheatley, a US management guru with whom they ran a two-day seminar earlier this month, lies in organisational structure. Her consulting firm focuses on applying natural science principles of self-organisation that engage the intelligence of the entire company in order to respond to change continuously.

The philosophy, expounded in her award-winning book, Leadership and the New Science, and the forthcoming A Simpler Way, has attracted the attention of US corporations, schools and hospitals as well as the US army.

Ms Wheatley believes that business has, consciously or unconsciously, modelled itself on Newton's idea of the universe as a great machine in which the parts move and pull one another in predictable and unchangeable ways. She, on the other hand, has adapted scientific theories to put across the notion that chaos does not imply the total breakdown of order. There are still constants; what is unpredictable is where and how these patterns will occur. Consequently, leaders must be equipped to adapt to such uncertainty.

One of the keys to this is understanding that there is no single right approach. The seminar, for instance, studied a response to this situation from Hewlett-Packard, the US electronics company renowned for its inventiveness. But delegates were warned against merely replicating it. "What works in one place may not work in another," explained Ms Franchi. She added that the important thing was to engage the people in the organisation - and "there's a whole host of ways to do that."

Ms Wheatley insists that hers is an age-old message that "people are really capable and intelligent." But current attitudes suggest it needs to be spread anyway. As she says: "Why can't we use people rather than spending so much timeputting them in boxes? Managers say they want people to be creative, but they don't notice how people are in their private lives."

She believes that if companies encouraged employees to bring into work the things that interest them at home rather than insisting on a divide between work and outside they might get more out of them. "We need people to be adaptable, we need people to keep learning," she says. But to do that, it is necessary to start changing the way we think.

Admitting that her pronouncements sound like a Sunday school lesson, she adds that trust is fundamental. If you cannot trust the people with whom you work, "you get into control and fear and supervision". The problem with that for the manager is that he or she goes through all the changes necessary in the modern business environment only to end up with people who do not want to work there.