In a new book, Change the Way You Lead Change (Stanford University Press), Georgia Tech organizational behavior professors David Herold (emeritus) and Donald Fedor argue that most of the literature on change avoids dealing with the complexities of real-life organizational changes. What looks good on a spreadsheet does not necessarily translate into effective change, they say.
The authors dispense with "ten easy steps" approaches, which emphasize how executives can make change go more smoothly, and "blame the victim" approaches, which say the problem lies with the targets of change who just don’t get it.
Instead, Herold and Fedor spent the last ten years asking executives to think of an unsuccessful change initiative and to identify the key factors that were responsible for the failure. In pursuing this question, they examined more than 300 organizational changes and more than 8,000 individuals who lived through them. The authors then reality tested their ideas by bouncing them off hundreds of managers who were living change on a daily basis.
Roller Coaster of Change
The authors found that although most advice about organizational change focuses on a few steps applied to a single change, few people actually lived in a "one change at a time" environment.
Companies, by contrast, live on a "roller coaster of change," with overlapping changes being driven by different events, led by different executives, and originating from different parts of the organization. Change is never a stepwise or easily prescribed process: It is messy and complicated, and its outcomes are easily swayed by a host of factors, found the authors.
As a result, Herold and Fedor argue that business leaders need to radically change the way they think of change. They should implement "holistic change" models that define and justify proposed changes, taking account of the abilities of the people who will lead them and carry them out, and of the internal and external context in which changes occur.
The Right Approach
There is no alternative to carefully strategizing a desired change and asking "what," "with whom" and "under what conditions" before even beginning to answer the question of "how," the authors stress. Most change books put the cart before the horse by tackling the "how" question as if the rest did not matter.
According to Herold and Fedor, their recommended diagnosis typically yields one of three alternatives: a) modification of the nature, magnitude, or timing of the change idea; b) temporarily shelving the change idea and getting buy-in for the change idea within the company; or c) moving ahead with the change idea, but with a better sense of the challenges that will need to be addressed by the change process.
The book references many companies (including HP, Xerox, Ford, and The Home Depot) that realized the need to change and were not timid about rolling out many changes, but bungled the efforts. It also cites the all too rare instances in which savvy leaders, such as those at Merck and P&G, were able to navigate successfully through change.
"In a world replete with easy answers and facile slogans, this book recognizes that changing organizations is a complex, difficult business, and offers a practical model and some very useful examples and applications that will help the reader to beat the odds," says Steve Kerr, senior advisor for Goldman Sachs and former head of training and development, Goldman Sachs and General Electric.