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Should we start again?

January 26, 2018

I interrupted this series for yesterday’s brief tribute to Ursula Le Guin. In the first post a couple of days ago I asked if, realistically, one can start from scratch in any organisational change initiative. In my first post I pointed out that the past was a significant filter that would overcome any idealistic future oriented speech in other than a crisis. I also argued against the evangelical attitude of many change advocates and how that was counter productive in creating real change. Finally I suggested that change could be shifted towards an adjacent possible but that major change, other than during a near catastrophic failure of existing practice and certainties, was impossible.

Today I want to ask the ‘should’ question. There seems to be an orthodoxy in many organisations that change is, of itself, a good thing. If people complain, or something doesn’t seem to be working then we generally end up blaming culture or mindset rather than questioning what we asked for, or the realities of the current situation. I see a range of contexts here that people tend to ignore and which trigger an inauthentic need for change:

  1. In some types of work failure is inevitable and triage decisions may be needed.  We’ve seen multiple re-organisations in the NHS based on stories of failure, when that failure is a part and parcel of the job itself.  Some people will die, from time to time your ingrowing toe-nail might involving you waiting four hours to be seen in A&E and so on.
  2. There is a desired to save cost and further than the route to doing that is to re-organise, create an efficiency programme etc.   Again I will use an NHS example where outsourcing core services meant that changing a £3 light bulb cost £70 and medical staff were not allowed to make the change.  More dangerously this type of re-organisation may destroy the dark constraints, the ways of doing things that have grown up over the years and are not fully understood; a very common aspect of a human complex system.
  3. We have a new executive and he wants to lay down a mark.  A lot of corporate rebranding has become like this.  More the new alpha male pissing on the trees to mark out their territory rather than any genuine need.  Change becomes fashionable and it is often linked to the latest ‘big thing’.  Many, many examples in the past – BPR, LO, Blue Ocean etc. etc.   Its like a form of infection in which Executives (and consultants) want to be seen to be doing things.  Too many re-organisations are all about creating busy work for internal and external consultants alike.
  4. The desire for a crusade, driven by zealots who have believe in something a little too strongly.   In 1212 children or various classes of the wandering poor (its disputed)  left Northern Europe too recover the Holy Land  Two out of three died on route and none got much further than Brindisi.   I see a lot of this around Agile at the moment where people make the means an end in itself.  Anything evangelically touted as a great good that will replace a terrible evil should be carefully questioned and deeply mistrusted.
  5. Finally, and the worst, by canny executives who realise that announcing a major change that will take two to three year to implement is a way of looking good without taking responsibility for what happens.  I saw a lot of this in IBM, in fact one guy Andrew practiced it to ‘perfection’.  He constantly was heralding as an agent for change, but always got promoted before the consequences of his latest initiative came home to roost.  Reality was never allowed to catch up with him.

So there are all sorts of reasons to question if we should attempt to start again. More tomorrow.

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Ursula Le Guin

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