Management: Staying changed is the tough part: This is the first of a series of regular columns by the management consultant and best-selling author of In Search of Excellence

Tom Peters
Saturday 12 June 1993 23:02

CONSULTANTS believe in change. It keeps bread on their tables. That is as true for the conservative sort (who sell corporate renewal via rational strategic plans) as it is for the instinctive types (bent upon altering 'corporate culture'). Ordinary people are hopeful, too: witness the millions of self-help books we buy each year. Yet most companies fail to execute the brilliant strategies the consultants propose. Most who swear by the transforming nature of their three-day 'culture-change workshops' revert to type on the job by mid-morning Tuesday.

The change debate rages. Take organisational change. One school sees organisations as malleable, and in constant flux. Another draws inspiration from biological models: births and deaths of companies are normal, but the individual organisation is born by chance and passes away when what made it good becomes dysfunctional. Conventional theories 'treated organisations as rational, flexible and speedy adapters to changing environmental circumstances,' wrote Michael Hannan and John Freeman in Organisational Ecology, but 'the organisations we knew (were) anything but flexible and quick in response to changing opportunities and constraints in the environment'.

Then there are those who look at change through the lens of leadership. Change demands superb leaders who fire us up to shed our shopworn ways. Others such as Bob Cole of the University of California, say the leadership variable is grossly overrated. He points out that Japanese economic performance has been remarkable, but few Japanese can name many, or any, of their business leaders.

These differing views have enormous consequences for the economy, the firm and the individual. Consider economic policy. If you believe corporations have a tough time changing, you let the old ones die when their time comes - eg, favour anti-trust enforcement, fight consortia and collusive joint ventures, and support entrepreneurialism via a minuscule capital gains tax. But if you see corporate change as a walk in the park, you'll champion business combinations and other policies to boost big, powerful outfits - given your faith that such gargantuan organisations can switch colours to suit the season.

Prescriptions for guiding the firm are about the same: pessimists about adaptivity support the models of 3M or Johnson & Johnson, which foster the creation of numerous independent divisions and eschew the allure of synergy. Optimists about change rely on co-ordinated strategic planning to guide the institution towards whatever ideal tomorrow it chooses.

As for you and me, we'll impoverish ourselves on 'new you' seminars if we think we can conquer shortcomings. If we're resigned to being flawed (yet wish to succeed), we'll exploit to the hilt whatever we've got.

I see change everywhere. Yet I'm extremely pessimistic about planned change. Yes, chief executive Mike Walsh crafted quick, dramatic change at Union Pacific Railroad. Vaughn Beals did as much at Harley-Davidson. These outfits were blessed with crushing outside pressure. Yet, even in these cases, whether the change will outlast the leader is problematic.

There is a more durable argument against pointing to such examples as proof of corporate malleability. They are, I fear, exceptions that prove the rule. Corporate saviours are most remarkable for their sparse ranks. Forget any corporate or national policy that depends on one emerging at the critical time.

A while back, I was outside planting bulbs. The earth flew, and I was splattered with mud. I looked up to find my wife laughing. 'You dig like you write, like you cook, like . . .' Her list went on. She is a poet, and parsimonious with words. I started to laugh, too: she plants (carefully, beautifully) like she writes, like she cooks . . .

Quantum mechanics tells us that we exchange all of our particles every seven years - with rocks, trees, the air and one another. Now that is change] On the other hand, with the exception of a few more grey hairs and a few pounds, Tom-the-digger of seven years ago is readily recognisable as Tom-the-digger of today. I've got a great new set of muons; but they seem to garden in almost the same way as the old ones.

In short, beware of individual, corporate or national paths to nirvana which require becoming totally different to that which was at the conception of a company.

Copyright TPG Communications

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