A Christmas Story – Day 54

Wednesday 15:40, Old Bethnal Green Road, London

This entry is an edited version of my essay on power, politics and organisational change. I’m pretty sure nobody is interested in reading a 12-page academic exercise in management gobbledigook, so here is a version better suited for The Executive Kitchen. As it’s Christmas, I’ve written a children’s story that takes place at The Gingerbread Factory.

Once upon a time, in a country far, far away there was a young boy called Joshua. He worked at a small ginger farm, Zingiber, and had done so for many, many years. Truth be told, Joshua had always worked at Zingiber, and if there was one thing Joshua knew extremely well, it was farming ginger. Joshua was very good at his job; in fact, his dedication to working with one of Zingiber’s key distributors, Silk Road Enterprises, had had a tremendous impact on Zingiber’s revenues year after year.

One day while checking that the ginger bulbs hadn’t been damaged by the first winter frost, Zingiber’s Chief Executive Baker, Mrs Wheat, announced that Zingiber had been sold to the famous supplier of Christmas extravaganza, The Gingerbread Factory. Joshua was ecstatic. He had always dreamt of working for a big company like The Gingerbread Factory.

It didn’t take very long for changes to take place. Some were good, some were bad, and some were pretty terrible. Initially, Joshua assumed that he was going to continue working with Silk Road Enterprises, but he quickly learnt that The Gingerbread Factory and Silk Road Enterprises didn’t really get along. One spring morning when Joshua was admiring the green ginger shoots sprouting from the fertile soil of the farm, the Chief Executive Baker at The Gingerbread Factory, Mrs Icing, announced that all ties with Silk Road Enterprises should be cut.

‘We don’t work with ginger distributors’ she was rumored to have said.

Before Joshua knew it, he found himself in the midst of a change management team. Complex formulas were used to work out what needed to happen and when. An alphabet soup of instructions was created and given to the cookie shop team whose job it was to deliver the change news to Silk Road Enterprises customers.

Joshua felt inspired by the change strategy as he really and truly believed that he was part of something really good and that he was doing the right thing. But it seems that everyone believed in this a little too much. In fact, they believed in it so much that they chose to ignore one small paragraph of an inconspicuous clause of the distribution agreement:

‘Zingiber shall not use confidential information regarding Silk Road Enterprises’ methods of distributing ginger and all ginger-related material, including but not limited to gingerbread men, gingerbread houses or any other form or shape of gingerbread that can possibly ever be made, to its own benefit.’

Almost immediately following the launch of the change event angry and threatening letters started to arrive form Silk Road Enterprises’ head office in New Pork accusing The Gingerbread Factory and Zingiber for breach of contract. Joshua, and everyone else who had supported and worked on the change event, felt like the twirls of a cinnamon bun had been un-twirled. In response to these letters, The Gingerbread Factor’s Chief Oven Engineer, Mrs Car da Mom, was forced to put everything on hold for a few days.

But days became weeks, and weeks became months, and months… well, months started to go by and without any news from Mrs Car de Mom on what to do next, Joshua and everyone else for that matter went back to what they did best – farming ginger.

Several months later, Mrs Car da Mom tried to re-ignite the drive for another slightly altered approach to change, but it was too late. The harm had already been done. You see, when you harm human beings, including ginger farmers, you hurt their sense of pride, professionalism and intelligence, and once this is done, there’s very little you can do to change it.

Not too long after the dispute with Silk Road Enterprises, Joshua got a call from The Cupcake Factory offering him a new job. As Joshua’s loyalty to Zingiber was no longer the same after the acquisition by The Gingerbread Factory, his head was easily turned and he left and did not look back.

Organisational change is a complex issue, littered with pitfalls that may trap even the most experienced professionals. Despite the abundance of change management literature, organisational change remains an area that many organisations have yet to fully master. One possible explanation for this is that organisational change remains largely misunderstood and the dynamic, inter-related and multi-dimensional nature of change is ignored.

Organisational change is rarely managed successfully by applying a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution. All change management models have their strengths, but they also have weaknesses as well as assumptions, leading me to believe that a combination of theories and models could be used. This, however, presents us with new challenges, as senior managers who are at the cusp of initiating a change event rarely have the time to take a complex solution and apply it to a complex change event. Ultimately this may be what is necessary to reverse the high failure rate of organisational change management.

Gingerbread men






Thoughts While Waiting for a Haircut – Day 50

Saturday 14:49, Rocket Barber Shop, Hackney Road, London

Earlier this week, on Tuesday to be precise, I handed in my first tutor-marked assignment. It was a 2,500-word essay on the topic of power and politics and organisational change. Our objective was to take an existing critique of change management and apply it to a change management theory of our choice and to discuss its weaknesses and assumptions. We were also asked to include a change event from our own professional experience to further uncover the limitations of change management.

In the end, I’m happy with the work I submitted. It took way way longer than I thought, about 60 hours of reading, writing, editing and proofing, and hopefully it meets all the criteria for a good mark – after all, this is how I’m being measured. And if I don’t, well I’ve learnt an awful lot about organisational change management and the far-reaching effects it is likely.

So what are the key takeaways and what advice would I give to my future self about to embark on a change event?

  1. Change is generally much more complex than you think. If your strategy fails, you’re unlikely to get a second chance. And if you do, well you’re pretty likely to fail again.
  1. Not only is change multi-factorial and multi-dimensional, it’s also dynamic and inter-dependent. This makes change extremely difficult to model, let alone control. An analogy would be to attempt making origami whilst riding a unicycle on a high wire during a 9.2 magnitude earthquake. Blindfolded. I think you get the picture.
  1. Whatever change method you roll out you’re likely to create ripple effects with wide social consequences. Issues surrounding power and politics are integral to how organisations are run and change management is no exception. If you are unable to communicate honestly and with a sense of trust, you’re unlikely to align your strategic objectives with those of the individuals you employ. And even if you do, if you fail to empower those around you to believe what you do, you’re destined for complex issues involving resistance, motivation and non-compliance.
  1. Don’t forget that whatever you say or do your actions will be seen through someone else’s lens. Your reality is someone else perspective and no matter how objective you try to be, remember that it is rare to go through a change event with only winners.
  1. Ask yourself if change really is necessary. Ask yourself if it really is as good as you think and whether it is desirable by everyone it affects. Before allowing the ripple effects to turn into a tsunami, be sure that you have considered the ‘no change’ alternative.
  1. If you’ve come to the conclusion that change management is necessary, call in the experts. You’re likely to lose less money and waste less time by working with people whose bread and butter is change. After all, if your boiler breaks down, you wouldn’t really try to fix it yourself, would you?

Ever since the discipline of change management emerged in the early 1980s the failure rate of change has remained at 60-70%. To me, this is a strong indication that something is very very wrong with how change is managed at organisations.


On the Imbrication of Text and Practice and the Hegemonic Struggles Over Meaning – Day 33

Wednesday 17:38, Somewhere on the Northern Line, Somewhere Underground, London

I’m not as intelligent as you may think I am. While it’s not my intention to victimise myself or to fish for compliments, I’ll give myself credit for being determined, quick at decision making and driven. And I guess there’s an element of passion in here somewhere. But super intelligent? No, that’s definitely not me. At most, I’d say I’m reasonably so.

What has brought about this sudden and unexpected wave of self-doubt, you may ask yourselves. I suspect it has got to do with an article that I’m currently reading.

The title of the article is Beneath and Beyond Organizational Change Management: Exploring Alternatives. As you can tell from its somewhat dry title, it’s an academic article from a management journal called Organization. Now, I have to admit it has been a while since I dedicated myself to reading academic journals. My last encounter with this highly particular form of communication was when reading an article about public health in the great scholarly publication Foreign Affairs. I had the intention – and, believe me, intention was all that I had – of subscribing to it for no other reason than to satiate my hunger for analysis and debate on foreign policy, economics and global affairs. The article was extremely fascinating, but it was a hard read and it took forever. Needless to say, I never took out a subscription.

Academic writing can be such a god damn pain. If the objective of writing a scholarly article about any topic is to communicate, why do some authors choose to communicate in the most incomprehensible ways?

Take this paragraph as an example:

Francis and Sinclair locate their analysis of HRM-based changed within Fairclough’s notion of a ‘discursive event’ – the imbrication of text and practice – linked to the hegemonic struggles over meaning. 

If that’s not enough, take a look at this:

Drawing on what they describe as Scandinavian institutionalism, their explicit aim is to transcend the conventional oppositions between stability and change; planned and emergent (adaptive) change; or imitation (old) and innovation (new). Attention is focused on the construction (or translation) of meaning, as in the translation of ideas to fit problems, regardless of their form. For example, Czarniawska and Gorges (1996) develop the theme of translation of meaning (of people and objects as well as that of ideas) in presenting organisational change in terms of the ‘travels of ideas’ into disembedded ‘quasi-objects’ (i.e graphical representations) and then more embedded institutions and identities and, from there, ‘new’ ideas.

No wonder I feel like the academic equivalent of a ‘dumbwaiter’, you know, the lift that brings food from the kitchen to the waiters’ serving area. ‘Dumblearner’ would quite aptly sum up how I feel at the moment.

In the end, it took me over 2.5 hours to read this article of 9.5 pages. When expressing my despair and inability to make sense of what I’m reading, Marc comforted me by saying that, with time, I should get better at it. I certainly can’t get any worse, that’s for sure.