Zeitschrift Organisations Entwicklung
Stand: Juli 2017

In 'Meine Akten' einfügen

ZOE vom 15.07.2017, Heft 03, Seite 18 - 20, ZOE1244044
OrganisationsEntwicklung > Interview

Organisational change demystified

An interview with Professor Rune Todnem By, editor-in-chief of Journal of Change Management and Chairman of the Public Leadership Foundation

Rune Todnem By

Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Staffordshire University (UK), Professor II Change Leadership at University of Stavanger (Norway), Editor-in-chief of Journal of Change Management, and co-founder and chairman of the Public Leadership Foundation

E-mail: R.T.By@staffs.ac.uk

Top-down, bottom-up, directive, participative, … there hardly is an approach in triggering and managing organisational change which hasn’t been declared as universally applicable. Without a doubt, all of these approaches to change have been successful in one way or another. However, such a thinking also has its limitations. Rune Todnem By takes a critical look at the challenges of organisational change in the 21st century and shares with us his personal charter of change leadership principles.

ZOE: There hardly is a book or presentation on organisational change that does not start with a long list of challenges for organisations in the 21st century. It’s often a mix of evidence, myth and probably truth. What is your take on the greatest organisational change challenges ahead?

By: The greatest challenges faced by organisations today are not any one particular change, nor the amount and speed of change. Human beings have always lived with and developed through change. It’s in our DNA. The main challenge faced today is not the unpredictability of change but something much more predictable and within our control. That is if we want to control it. The challenge we are faced with is our approach to how to manage and lead organisational change, and I will break this down into six sub-challenges:

First, management and organisational leaders have a tendency of thinking that what is required is continuous change. This is plain wrong. What is required is the continuous management of change. Not constantly changing is a valid option, and saying no often requires more courage than saying yes. Continuous change will only lead to change for the sake of change, individual opportunistic behaviour, uncertainty, change fatigue, and potentially strategic drift. What is critical is to be ready for change if and when required, and as a general rule of thumb this change should be proactive rather than reactive. We should change because it is the right thing to do for our organisation.

Second, we are thinking «us & them». We label ourselves as either management or employees as if belonging to two different, often warring tribes with different interest when in fact in most organisations we are all employees. We are all hired and can be fired, we just happen to perform different roles. Then we have a tendency of equalling management to change agents and employees to change resistors. This is of course nonsense. We are all human beings, and at any one point in time we may initiate one change, support a second, and resist a third. Management can be as reluctant to change as non-management and employees can be just as valuable as change agents as their managers. Such labelling will only lead to tribal behaviour, which is not in the organisation’s interest.

Third, we change too much. As well as implementing initiatives simply because others are doing it, I also observe too much of what I would characterise as individual opportunistic behaviour, often draining organisations and its members of energy. By this I mean change initiated in support of individuals’ ambitions and CV building rather than in the interest of the organisation. These are often tick-the-box initiatives such as yet another programme of cost-cutting or yet another restructure leading to measurable short term wins. Although I am not a betting man, I would bet on a new CEO changing the organisational structure within 18 months of taking up the reigns. These initiatives can of course be justified, but I would argue that often they are not. Continuous cost cutting and ZOE 03/2017 S. 19restructuring is not sustainable and may in fact have devastating medium to long term consequences for the organisation and its stakeholders as it erodes the sense of stability, trust and belonging throughout the organisation. However, at the time of potential failure, the initiators have already been rewarded and moved up the career ladder.

Fourth, we change too little. Many organisations are not capable of executing the change really required in order to excel or even survive. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but in my view decision-making capabilities are at the core. I see too many managers and organisational leaders engaging in risk aversion activities. Activities such as mass emails, increasing amounts of meetings, and the creation of unnecessary bureaucracy and complex hierarchies with an increasing number of non-jobs in order to divert the individuals’ responsibilities of actually having to make decisions. The reason for this is that every decision carries a certain amount of risk. The risk of getting it wrong. Hence, people paid to make decisions are often not. However, even the worst decision is often better than no decision at all.

Fifth, we focus too much on what is measurable. We are living in times where everything revolves around Key Performance Indicators. However, what really matters to an organisation can often be difficult to measure. One example being culture. As a result what can be easily measured becomes important, and what may be important but difficult to measure becomes unimportant. Perhaps we fail to have KPIs for what really matters. As a result, change initiatives are too often focusing on what is easily measurable and not necessarily on what is important.

Sixth, we are looking for the one right approach, the one right answer often presented by a senior management group or a consultant. But there is no one right answer when it comes to organisational change, so let’s stop searching and let’s stop claiming we are in possession of it. There are ongoing debates about the planned versus the emergent approaches to change, top-down versus bottom-up, should we listen to Kotter or not, which I simply find exhausting and purposeless. What we need to realise is that change is context based and all about our people. In order to deliver successful change we need to work with and not against people at all levels. Those often referred to as change resistors may in fact be very resourceful individuals who just happen to have a different opinion about the situation or our approach to it. It should not be assumed that they are «difficult» and against management. People resisting often care deeply about the organisation and want to do what they believe to be right. Writing them off is often the first step towards organisational failure.

ZOE: We follow certain paradigms or principles in change, e. g. urgency or top down support. Are these paradigms empirically sound and do they count for everyone?

By: Yes, there are different views on what is the best approach to managing organisational change, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. They all have something to contribute, and they are all flawed at the same time. The danger is to present the one right way when there is none. For example, I really like Kotter’s Eight Stage Process because of its no-nonsense simplicity and availability. Not because it is perfect, but because it helps us think. At the same time I work closely with colleagues who see it differently, and that is fine.

There is very little empirical evidence in support of any change, management or leadership concept. Apart from Kurt Lewin’s work, these concepts are mostly based on individual experience and opinions. In my view this does not devalue their potential individual contribution. However, it does suggest that no one paradigm can claim to be better than others. When that is said, I think the one dangerous paradigm we are facing is a managerial paradigm where we assume managers know best, and that they provide leadership, something they often don’t. The paradigm of assuming that management is a different and better tribe than employees is perhaps one of my greatest concerns.

ZOE: If you were asked to formulate your personal universal «charter of organisational change principles’» which principles would it contain?

By: Well, first of all, I would never suggest that there could be such a thing as a universal charter, nor that I am the right person to formulate it. However, I will provide a list of what I think is crucial with regards to securing sustainable successful organisational change:

1. Have a clearly defined organisational purpose (answer the questions: who are we - what are we here to do – where are we going/who are we not – what are we not here to do – where are we not going)

2. Establish clear priorities (when everything is a priority nothing is…)

3. Live and breathe a culture of US rather than «US & THEM»

4. Provide everyone with trust, support, focus and control over what is their clearly defined job (don’t ask everyone to do everything as nothing will get done)

5. Be proactive rather than reactive – dare to be first!

6. Focus on building change readiness rather than on demolishing change resistance

7. Embrace and expect decision making, risk taking and learning

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8. Ensure structure supports purpose and culture (avoid bureaucracy and a tail-wagging-the-dog approach)

9. Acknowledge that continuous change management does not equal continuous change

10. Penalise rather than reward individual opportunistic behaviour which carries negative medium to long term consequences to the organisation and its stakeholders (what we do is for the organisation as a whole)

ZOE: If you were to recommend three to four texts on organisational change, what would they be?

By: Oh that’s a difficult one because there are so many books out there. But here we go:

  • Cawsey, T.F., Deszca, G. & Ingols, C. (2016). Organizational change: an action oriented toolkit. London: SAGE. [This is the book I am using when delivering on Executive MBA]

  • Luecke, R. (2003). Managing change and transition. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business Review Press [This was the first book I ever read on organisational change and as such provided guidance and inspiration for where I am today]

  • Northouse, P.G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. London: SAGE [I don’t believe we should look at change in isolation from leadership, and this is a great book on leadership]