Complex Change

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  • Topic: Management consulting, Exponential growth, Exponential function
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Complex Change: Presentation 20 May 2005
Harry Truman once said “You issue orders from this office and if you can find out what happens to them after that, you’re a better man than I am!” He was talking about the Oval Office rather than the office of the CEO, but the analogy holds. Looking at many change projects, senior executives often behave as though they believe that life is as straightforward as issuing orders and watching as the world obeys. If that were true, the world would be a simpler but duller place. Senior executives are actually aware of the difficulty of achieving lasting change, despite the behavioural clues from many of their projects. Herding cats, nailing jelly to the wall, wrestling with wet soap – these are the metaphors that executives often resort to as they struggle to explain their project experiences.

But many executives continue to run complex, organisational change projects as though they comply with Newtonian physics or the world of the electrical engineer. Others seem to have given up hope that change can be planned and just launch the change at the organisation through a series of workshops and hope for the best. Many have resorted to one or both of two strategies that others criticise as coming from the “hit it and hope” school: * Buying the latest management “how to” book in the search for answers * Buying external consultants in the search for the silver bullet

Richard Pascale, a leading US business school professor, has compiled an “influence index” of business fads that shows an exponential increase in management ideas in the 1980s and 1990s, from zero-based budgeting to MBWA, from benchmarking to business process re-engineering. Most academics criticise most of the ideas as simplistic and deterministic, although the authors themselves often claim to have discovered that “the next point of inflexion is about to unfold” – that quote, somewhat ironically, describes a management idea in one of Pascale’s own...
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