We cannot stand still, we are impelled towards the future; it’s human. So, too, in organisational life, change is the mantra. But have we become addicted to it?
Spend any length of time in any large organisation and you will touch and feel the orthodoxy that the job of those in authority is to drive through radical change.
'Me Too', climate change, the Grenfell disaster, the Lawrence inquiry, knife crime in London, the response to Brexit - on every side there are calls for transformational change, clear breaks in the cultures of organisations.
And yet, on every side, there is dissatisfaction with outcomes. Progress towards the sought-for new worlds is felt to be much too slow. Again and again, leaders go from 'Hero' to 'Zero' as they fail to live up to expectations.
What is going on? How have we become so preoccupied with attempts to drive through change? Maybe it is time to examine some of the assumptions that underpin the conventional view:
'We live in a period of unprecedented change'
It is not the first time in human history that people have believed that they live in a period of unprecedented change.
Heraclitus (who gave us the famous quote about change being the only constant) was an ancient Greek who lived in the fifth century BCE. Millenarians in the seventeenth century believed that conditions had reached the point where Christ was about to return to earth.
In the twentieth century, people from different perspectives repeatedly argued that everything has changed. In the 1930s, for Communists and Fascists alike, global capitalism and liberal democracy were spent forces. The world was racing to a new future.
In the 1960s many felt a new age of social and economic liberation had dawned. In 1990, with the collapse of Communism, there was the so-called ‘end of history’.
The absence of a proper historical sense is profoundly dangerous. Organizations that have no sense of history do not know where they come from or who they are. It means people have no perspective and are prey to every passing management fad.
'Change is good for you'
The current conventional view has disturbing echoes of tyrants. Ignoring the past, disdaining the present and fleeing into an imagined perfect future is what totalitarian regimes have done, from Stalin onwards. Abrupt change becomes compulsory in the service of a better future.
We say leaders also need to focus on continuity, the other side of organisational development.
Change and continuity are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. Individuals and organisations need change in order to sustain their essence. They need to be clear about what this essence is. And they need to be clear about continuity and stability for sanity and safety.
Change is not always good. Constant upheaval can damage and destroy the social fabric that holds organizations together and makes them special.
'People naturally resist change'
‘Change’, in the abstract, has been reified and made into an object. Leaders are often keen on recommending change for others. It is less clear what change they are taking on themselves.
We suggest that senior executives and their advisers (who advocate constant change) re-join the rest of human culture. Change is not a thing that stands alone in life. It is part and parcel of everything we do.
From the moment we leave our mother’s womb we are all familiar with profound changes. We experience the whole range of responses, from joy to deep sorrow or denial.
We also wonder why leaders want to say they like change and it is the "the others" who are hostile. What is it about themselves that causes some individuals to split people in this way? Many chief execs seem to project their feelings of inadequacy onto others and the world at large.
Senior folk need to trust their people. They should reach out and ask others: What change and what continuity do you want? What matters most to you? What is your vision?
'The role of those in authority is therefore to drive change'
The picture of the lone hero at the centre of the stage, coming up with the strategy and forcing change, is seductive; particularly to the highly driven, personally insecure individuals who reach the top in many companies. But at what cost – to organisations and those in authority?
Magical transformations require magical leaders. Often leaders are expected to wave a magic wand and solve social and organisational issues that have developed over many years.
We have seen the failures when well-intentioned leaders talk about the need for ‘change’ in the abstract, and it is heard by many as an attack on what they do and who they are.
A more do-able, less fanciful, idea of leadership is needed; one that takes account of the interdependence of leaders and those around them. One that acknowledges that many of the factors that lead to success are the properties of collectives, not individuals, and of the cultural and institutional infrastructure on which organizations depend.
Questions we suggest are:
- Can you think of adapting to changing circumstances rather than wholesale, top-down re-structuring?
- How can you involve the people closest to you?
- Which individuals and communities are you reaching out to, inside and outside your organisation, to discover exactly what the problem/opportunity/issue is?
- How do others see the issues? What are their needs/perspectives? How do you encourage people to express openly their feelings about the problem/opportunity/issue?
- Can you the use the need to adapt as a way to strengthen your authority and develop the people and culture of your team or organization?
George Binney (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a coach and consultant at Ashridge Hult Business School.
Philip Glanfield is a consultant and coach at Ashridge Hult Business School.
Gerhard Wilke is an anthropologist and group analyst. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
Binney, Glanfield and Wilke are the authors of Breaking Free of Bonkers: How to Lead in Today’s Crazy World of Organizations (Nicholas Brealey, 2017).