BY ERIC ABRAHAMSON
HO HASN'T HEARD THE MANTRA: change or perish? It's a corporate cliché by now. And like many clichés, it happens to be true. But so, too, is its unhappy corollary: many companies change and perish. Change is so disruptive it can tear organizations apart.
Over the past ten years, I have been studying how companies change, and my research suggests a counterintuitive imperative. To change successfully, companies should stop changing all the time. Instead, they should intersperse major change initiatives among carefully paced periods of smaller, organic change, using processes I call tinkering and kludging. By doing so, companies can manage overall change with an approach called dynamic stability. To be sure, achieving dynamic stability is more difficult than ramming big, hairy, audacious changes through an organization, in much the same way that it is more difficult to end a war with negotiations than with an atomic bomb. But dynamic stability has the great advantage of leaving survivors. It allows change without fatal pain.
The Problem with Change
Change, as it is usually orchestrated, creates initiative overload and organizational chaos, both of which provoke strong resistance from the people most affected. Traveling from company to company in my research, I repeatedly encountered more and more "permafrost" organizations, where change-fatigued middle managers froze out initiatives introduced by the 20-somethings below them and the senior managers above them who were hot for change.
Their resistance found its voice in an aggressive cynicism. People spoke about change programs in angry, often offensive language, and Dilbert cartoons festooned almost every office