In business, caution is key to its success

DEBATE OVER CHANGE RAGES EVERYWHERE

May 06, 1991|By TOM PETERS | TOM PETERS,1991 TPG COMMUNICATIONS

Consultants believe in change. It keeps bread on their tables. That's as true for conservative sorts (selling corporate renewal via rational strategic plans) as it is for "touchy-feely" types (bent upon altering your "corporate culture"). Ordinary folks are hopeful, too: Witness the millions of salvation-by-the-numbers, self-help books we buy each year.

Yet most companies fail to execute the brilliant strategies their consultants propose. Most who swear by the transforming nature of their three-day "culture-change workshop" revert to type on the job by midmorning Tuesday.

The change debate rages from the Odd Fellows' Lodge to the pristine halls of academe. Take organizational change. One school sees organizations as malleable, and in constant flux. Another draws inspiration from biological models: Births and deaths of companies are normal; but the individual organization is born of happenstance and passes away when what made it good becomes dysfunctional.

Conventional theories "treated organizations as rational, flexible and speedy adapters to changing environmental circumstances," Cornell University's Michael Hannan and John Freeman write in their book "Organizational Ecology." But "the organizations we knew . . . [were] anything but flexible and quick in . . . response to changing opportunities and constraints in the environment."

Then there are those who look at change through the lens of leadership. Change demands superb leaders who fire us up to shed our shopworn ways, some croon. Opponents, such as University of California Professor Bob Cole, vow that the leadership variable in business is overrated.

Among students of psychology, the change debate has raged for a century. "Nature vs. nurture" is one divider: Once you're born, is it too late to change? Those who downplay the role of genes don't necessarily champion human liability: There's the "what matters happens by the age of 5" crowd (friends of Freud) vs. the "change forever" gang (behaviorist B. F. Skinner's followers, who insist that we can turn on a dime right up to the last gasp).

Consider economic policy. If you believe that corporations have a tough time changing, you let the old ones die when their time comes. But if you see corporate change as a walk in the park, you'll champion business combinations and other policies to boost big, powerful outfits.

Prescriptions for guiding the firm are about the same: Pessimists about adaptivity support the 3M or Johnson & Johnson model, which fosters the creation of numerous, independent divisions and eschews the allure of synergy. Optimists about change rely on coordinated strategic planning to guide the institution toward whatever ideal tomorrow it chooses.

I see change everywhere. Yet I'm extremely pessimistic about planned change. Yes, CEO Mike Walsh crafted quick, dramatic change at stodgy Union Pacific Railroad. Vaughn Beals did as much at Harley-Davidson. These outfits were blessed with crushing outside pressure; yet even in these cases, whether the change will outlast the leader is problematic.

But there's a more durable argument against pointing to such examples as proof of corporate malleability. They are, I fear, exceptions that prove the rule.

A while back, I was outside planting bulbs. The earth flew. I

was splattered with mud. Soaked with sweat. I looked up to find my wife laughing. "You dig like you write like you cook like . . ."

Quantum mechanics tells us that we exchange all of our particles every seven years -- with rocks, trees, the air and one another. That's change! On the other hand, with the exception of a few more gray hairs and a few pounds plus or minus, Tom-the-digger of seven years ago is readily recognizable as Tom-the-digger of today.

In short, beware of individual, corporate or national paths to nirvana that require becoming something much different than what one was at birth or founding.

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