Why the “change industry” is a curse and a waste of resources

(This is a guest post by John Fletcher. John is an Englishman now resident in Europe, with a long career in the public sector in several countries. He has spent a good deal of time in working environments outside the Anglo-Saxon world, and has written and lectured on organizational issues.)

Browsing through the Amazon.com site recently, I tripped over an interesting statistic. I discovered that there almost sixty thousand titles on change in the business section of Amazon alone. And of those, nearly forty thousand titles have to do with Change Management. (This contrasts, if you’re interested, with only about twenty-five thousand for the Theory of Relativity. Is changing organizations so much more complicated and difficult than understanding Einstein’s theories of the Universe? What’s going on here? )

Change, as represented in the literature, is a vast and heroic undertaking, needing supermen to bring it about, in the face of indifference and opposition from vested interests, and promising to save entire organizations from imminent annihilation.

Change as described in innumerable books

Change, in this view, is not organic, or evolutionary, or even necessarily rational. Change is not introduced; rather a new breed of heroes and “champions” is required to “drive it through.” (I don’t fully understand the metaphor, but I presume it has little to do with driving through MacDonald’s, for example.)

Change is more like a war, in which the enemy are your own employees. Those employees, in turn are expected just to “Work Harder,” like the horse Boxer in George Orwells’s Animal Farm, and to faithfully implement the decisions of the last management meeting — as well, of course, as doing their actual jobs.

What utter, absolute rubbish! Where did all this come from?

Change in real life

In real life, organizations change all the time, if they are any good, subtly adapting themselves to changing circumstances and likely challenges. If sudden radical and violent change is actually needed, it usually means one of two things:

  • There has been some sudden, unpredictable and overwhelming alteration in external circumstances; or
  • The organization is run by idiots who failed to see how the world was going.

I leave you to decide which is more likely.

An Ideology of Change

What is going on, beneath all this rhetorical garbage, is the arrival over the last twenty years or so of a veritable Ideology of Change. All of it is negative, but nothing about it is more dangerous, more intellectually slovenly, and more needlessly arrogant than the phrase “there’s always resistance to change.” This is an (unfortunately effective) way of deflecting questions and opposition, no matter how well founded, and dismissing any dissent on ideological grounds, even before it is articulated.

The Ideology of Change strengthens the short-term thinker over the long-term planner; the slash-and-burn merchant against the careful thinker; the superficial, aggressive personality against the manager who cares for his staff and the organization. It corrupts how we think and how we speak, with results that George Orwell would have recognized. (The inventor of the term “stakeholder buy-in” deserves death, but that’s not really a sufficient punishment for this kind of ideological atrocity, which reduces employees to the level of people holding sharp pieces of wood. )

Nevertheless, in spite of all this effort, all this bullying —all this intellectual corruption — the evidence suggests that most “change programs” fail — a number because they are badly implemented, but most because they incompetently conceived in the first place. So even if, as Joseph Goebbels remarked to Heinrich Himmler in 1934, there’s always resistance to change, those who resist are statistically most likely to be right.

Return to reality

What, if anything, can be done? Some of the remedies are generic — a move to longer-term thinking; a generation of managers in the Anglo-Saxon world who are properly trained and less frightened; a greater self-confidence in organizations themselves; less worshipping of transient fashion.

That’s already quite a long list, and one which you might think is impossible to bring about anyway. But there are three things that any sensible organization could, and maybe should, do, if only out of self-protection.

  • Recognize that most organizations work well enough most of the time, when people who know what they are doing are left to get on with the job.
  • Understand that major change is a rare event in the outside world, and that, by contrast, internal change is often de-motivating, time-consuming, and dangerous. People work best in stable and predictable environments.
  • Accept that organizations have their own wisdom; and that asking people who actually do the work what changes need to be made is often the most productive way forward.

All this, of course, will be unpopular with the “Change Industry,” with insecure and incompetent managers, with shareholders hoping for miraculous increases in profits, and with business pundits looking for something to write about. They won’t like it at all.

But then, “there’s always resistance to Change.”

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