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.