I believe that there are three primary reasons for our poor track record in changing organizations. One of the primary reasons for the failure of both scholars and practitioners to successfully develop and utilize a comprehensive yet parsimonious approach to organizational change is our collective failure to understand the systemic nature of change. Too often, organizational members operate in “departmental silos” that focus on local optimization at the expense of the entire system. Furthermore, the senior executives in charge of the overall organizational system (as well as the academics who study them) often fail to understand the interdisciplinary nature of their organizations as they are trapped in the myopia of their own backgrounds or disciplinary blinders.
Organizations are complex, interdependent social entities with relationships operating both within its boundaries and outside of its boundaries. Too many practitioners, in their “bias for action,” focus on a single dimension of organizational life or a single lever of organizational change. Change agents need to be reflective, as well as capable of influencing others. Organizational leaders need to be comprised of confident but humble CEOs and by well-functioning top management teams who collectively understand the entire organization, not a lone wolf with a reputation for individualism and boldness.
A second reason why so many change initiatives fail is that organizational change takes time, and time is one of the most precious commodities in the 21st century. In a recent article written by myself and a former doctoral student, we argued that organizations no longer have the luxury to go offline while the new information system is being built, the foreign venture is being launched, or the new technology is being analyzed. As such, change agents must “rewire” the plane while it is flying if the organization hopes to survive and perhaps prosper in the future. 1 Clearly, this is no easy task when everyone around you is arguing for you to “hurry up”!
A third reason why so many change initiatives fail is that our conception of what makes us human is overly mechanistic, narrow, and limited. Our traditional view of organizations is that they are hierarchies with power concentrated at the top with rational and logical employees operating throughout this hierarchy. While it is true that all organizations are hierarchical in some form and that organizational members are rational at times, this viewpoint is limited and not terribly realistic.
Organizational change is not only a rational activity but also an emotional one that challenges deep-seated human fears and inspires human hope. Indeed, John Kotter recently argued that change is predominantly about matters of the heart, not the head. 2Organizations can operate in mechanical ways, but they also comprise living human beings who want meaningful work that allows them to “have a life” outside of work. As such, by assuming that all organizational change is rational and logical in nature where fear, political positioning, and turf wars rage, one wonders why any change initiative might work.