Comment On : “Built to Change” Organisations

Major organisation change tends to happen periodically rather than smoothly and gradually. It is often high-wire stuff, pretty risky for the organisation, as well as highly threatening and disruptive for employees. But is there any alternative to this typical process of organisation change?
Enter Ed Lawler and Christopher Worley, two well-respected organisation-change gurus, who challenge traditional assumptions about how to successfully implement organisation change and transformation in their book Built to Change.
Lawler and Worley are sceptical of typical “one-off” organisation-change projects. Instead they believe organisations should be designed for ongoing continuous change in the first place.
The philosophy of Built to Change is that ongoing change and adaptability is part of normal business; change is not an occasional aberration undertaken every three or four years, completed and bedded in until the next major change programme becomes necessary.
As Lawler and Worley point out, many if not most major organisation-change projects fail to some degree or other. Perhaps the scale of the change is beyond the ability of the organisation to achieve, or internal resistance proves too difficult to overcome or the change programme simply peters out, half completed.
Major change and renewal projects do have high failure rate – with very good reason. There is natural in-built tendency for organisations and the people who work in them, to prefer stability and continuity – major change threatens that and it is not surprising that major structural changes are so often resisted and therefore so difficult to implement successfully.
Organisation change means “unfreezing” current success recipes, ditching structures and reporting arrangements that no longer work well, and introducing new and risky changes. The new changes must be introduced successfully, bedded in and locked into place. Finally the company begins to re-stabilise around the new changes and gets back to business – that is, until the next change and renewal programme cycle begins.
So if periodic, one-off organisation change is so difficult and fraught with failure, is the ongoing “built to change” solution proposed by Lawler and Worley going to work any better?
According to Lawler and Worley, if you are going to build an organisation with the capacity for continuous change and adaptation you need to:
• Forget about formal strategic planning – it’s too static; instead focus on continual strategic adjustment to developments in the marketplace. Work at creating range of “preferred future strategic options”.
• Look outwards not inwards; encourage employees to focus on the external customer environment.
• Design the organisation around tasks and individual skill sets; not job positions.
• Develop talent-management systems that identify and promote employees with positive attitude to change, who are keen to learn new skills, like experimenting with change.
In theory at least, Lawler and Worley’s concept of organisations with capacity for continuous change and adaptability is an appealing one. It seems to offer solution to the problems of one-off change and the risks and traumas that come with the traditional model of change; “unfreeze” – transition – “re-freeze” – which has poor track record.
Perhaps as Lawler and Worley say, by turning the problem of change on its head and building organisations with predisposition for ongoing change, the wrenching problems of periodic, major organisation change can be overcome with smaller, smoother, continuous transitions.
But then again, maybe not.
Continuous organisation change will be unrealistic and unworkable for most organisations. Most people who work in organisations prefer stability and continuity in their working lives. Ongoing continuous change is likely to prove too stressful, insecure and disruptive for most of us.
Unless the rewards are very high indeed, “built to change” organisations will struggle to attract workers to life of ongoing continuous change and adaptation. Leading and managing “built to change” organisations will also not be easy.
No doubt some organisations (perhaps software development companies and consulting firms) might thrive in an environment of “continuous change” but it won’t suit most businesses.
In the meantime, periodic, “one-off” major organisation change will remain the approach taken to change by most businesses. It has its flaws and risks and we need to become more skilled at managing change but Lawler and Worley’s concept of organisations “built to change” is unlikely to replace it soon.

Gordon Davidson is an independent management consultant who specialises in restructuring and turnaround management.

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