Change and organizational continuity

Few days ago I wrote on Facebook that I am currently reviewing books at the source of my formal knowledge on change, marketing, coaching, and the relationship between organizations and their environment (both in the private and public sector).

While going around, recently I was reading an old study about “Foreign and Security Policy Decision Making Under Eltsin” (1997, RAND).

But, of course, I was also remembering the “mother of all (recent) books on political decision making”- “Presidential Command”, a study on foreign policy making from Richard Nixon on.

And, if you are not really willing to read after a long working day- I think that I watched at least half a dozen times the movie “Thirteen Days”, about the Cuban missiles crisis.

My favourite, change-related scenes? Two scenes: the first, when, during the meeting to assess potential alternatives, a member of the committee has the guts to present a “softer” option.

And the one where the Secretary of Defense lambastes an Admiral for conducting the blockade as it has been done since John Paul Jones (i.e. late 18th century: flares and all the paraphernalia): while he says that, in the era of Nuclear Weapons, there is no time to recover a situation- and also a blockade is a communication tool, with a new language, a direct communication link between the US and the Russian Presidents.

Why this focus on political history? Because, along with military history, this is a field where any witness eventually publishes a personal version of “what really happened”.

And, after the first one, usually a short “publication frenzy” appears: a “marketing leverage” side-effect, allowing lesser known authors or witnesses to benefit from the brouhaha usually surrounding any “disclosure book”- leaving (almost) no stone unturned.

As I wrote long ago, I actually started in the late 1980s/early 1990s to study the theory of decision making, after toying on political theory and expert systems and then working on DSS, and including in my hobbies archaeology and cultural anthropology.

The first interesting books that I studied on decision making? A couple of decades years ago, a business book on quantitative decision making and modelling, and then a NATO-sponsored book on group decision making published, I think, in The Netherlands, after studying in early 1980s comparative theory about war and peace.

It is quite interesting to see how it still holds true the old saying- those who do not know history, are bound to repeat it- but this article is just a short outline.

Recently, I wrote about an example (“Cultural Heritage Management”) on the conflict resulting from short-termism and continuity with a focus on an extended definition of cultural heritage.

So, before the article, a will elaborate a little bit more about the role of cultural heritage in history.

Cultural heritage and change

If you were to build a theoretical “time capsule”, books or videos or records would not be enough to understand our way of life.

Maybe some canned and dehydrated food would be needed to let the discoverers understand the background of those books, videos, records (and I am ignoring the small technical detail of being able to actually read that material).

Long ago, I found in Rome a funny cookbook in Latin, English, Italian.

Its content? Recipes from Ancient Rome: a window on their “social supply chain”.

And then another book, about the food that was served in pubs in England when Shakespeare was alive, overflowing with tidbits on “why” some food was served the way it was served.

I do not expect any modern politician to assess the potential of successful results by inspecting the entrails of a goat.

But, otherwise, our complex society provides us with just a thin veil to hide the basic role of decision making processes that did not change that much since, say, the Hundred Years’ War.

And the fascinating constant is how change is often conflicting with the perception of organizational continuity: as any human organization is created by human beings- whose “vision” is constrained by their own experience of their own times.

I doubt that any current politician would deem acceptable the war practices often adopted by Ancient Romans with their defeated enemies- buy their allegiance or wipe them out.

In the business world, often money is assumed to be the way to “win”: but it is yet another example of short-termism.

Introducing change without affecting the organizational continuity often requires creating a new “continuity framework”, not simply mixing and matching the old and the new one.

In my experience- introducing change changes also those producing the change: albeit often they cannot see that they too are changing.

The weakest way to introduce change is probably simply overlapping a new organizational structure over an old culture, while leaving most of the old “knowledge gate keepers” in the same position: as they naturally try to keep what they are used to and adapt the form, not the substance of their actions.

In this article, I will barely scratch the surface of the “organizational continuity” concept: there is no lack of theories and books on “organizational evolution”- but most underestimate the resistance to change.

Organizational continuity: the “external perspective”

Any organization is perceived from outsiders as associated to a purpose: positive or negative.

I had often discussions with fellow consultants who focused on “needs”- and ignored “perceptions”.

Interestingly, the “needs”-based approach to organizational continuity claimed to be a “logical” choice (based on a selective reading of factual information).

Discarding the role that the organization had assumed within the social context of the outsiders (clients, suppliers, other people/organizations affected, other parts of the organization- the “external stakeholders”) should not be considered a benefit, but a mistake.

How do you decide which elements are significant in introducing a change? By adopting a selective approach- and selection implies using a framework of reference guiding the choices.

You can find plenty of material on how to involve external stakeholders, from polling to focus groups (e.g. have a look at the sections concerning the benefits realization management contained within the Managing Successful Programmes guide, 2007 OGC).

But while using as a reference the formal communication structure is generally enough when dealing with external stakeholders, often organizations large enough to be based on a structured bureaucracy, whose evolution is managed mainly top-down, require a different approach.

The evolution is usually carried out only where and when needed, and not necessarily involving the whole organization.

To avoid disrupting the activities of other parts of the organization, “representatives” of offices, areas, divisions, etc that could be affected are involved: and this would be a sensible approach in most cases when dealing with external suppliers or customers.

Unfortunately, often organizations develop an informal structure and informal communication channels- bypassing the bureaucracy and hierarchical structure, and connecting “under the radar”, i.e. without necessarily involving those who are typically selected as representatives.

The “external perspective” can therefore be misleading, as while it is possible (also if sometimes difficult) to keep a “Chinese wall” between the organization and other external stakeholders, it is often next to impossible to avoid colleagues to collaborate cross-functionally.

When change is introduced assuming a “black box” approach, it could be politically untenable to bypass the formal communication structure and talk directly with the people involved in the “informal” communication channels, unless the organization’s structure allows this kind of informal communication.

The solution? Depends on your organization- it ranges from having an internal “consulting” structure on change, reporting only to the CEO or the Board (or a combination thereof), to creating mixed “tiger teams”, a kind of “team of roving consultants” focused on doing a “reality check” on the part of the organization target for the change, and then confirm with people at the same operational level in other parts of the organization the informal processes adopted.

Organizational continuity: the “internal perspective”

When you shift from “us vs. them” to what happens within an organizational unit (or inside an organization), the perspective is slightly short-sighted.

Organizational continuity becomes a value “per se”, not necessarily associated to a purpose.

The resistance to change is sometimes explicit, but, when the change is managed internally, there is a subtler “self-censorship” that is even more dangerous, as any change is introduced as a “layer” linking to existing processes and constraints.

I think that the simplest examples that I observed where on the first conversions of manual processes into automated ones- often resulting in keeping everything, while adding also the electronic system.

Therefore, you end up with something that wraps the old processes within new ones- while also introducing a series of exceptions and work-around to embed into the new structure not only what was needed to produce the results, services, products that are perceived as being the purpose of the organizational structure, but also ensuring the continuity of any pre-existing processes whose representative is able to build a business case for its survival.

Yes, it is a negotiation- and, often, while reviewing processes or activities, the ability to present a business case trumped over the specific relevance.

Two and three generations later, you will still find authorizations, documents, activities required to keep stability and cross-checking in a manual process, but totally irrelevant when the information from A to Z is processed electronically.

But that is relatively easy to solve: you can start from the results, and go back to see what has no value added- identifying eventually how to manage the “streamlining”.

In organizational change, the issue is to both ensure continuity (and long-term resilience) within the activities- but also to manage the cultural transition, including the attrition that enables reshuffling positions to remove now redundant activities, but while keeping also the motivation of those involved.

The lack of external stakeholders (including new statutory requirements) removes the alibi commonly used to manage potential side-effects on the existing roles and relationships.

As for continuity, the issue is that most organizations do not see it as a basic characteristic of any process or organizational entity, but as an afterthought.

Anyway: it is nothing new, as the same happens with knowledge management, quality, and so on.

In my experience, profiling the impacts on continuity, quality, etc, should be part of a “scenario setting”, to identify potential alternatives and compare options- balancing costs and benefits.

But let’s move from cultural heritage and continuity to something else: recognizing the need to change.

Time to change: when needs become rituals

The link above is to a famous song from Bob Dylan: and he refers about “pushing” change.

And in most organizations the change is introduced either due to external “pushes” (e.g. regulatory changes), or an initiative from the top.

But those best positioned to identify the need for change when it can still be done “organically”, without affecting continuity, are actually those working within the organization.

You can read thousands of books on organizational change- or just start with something simple, practical- and feasible in most organizations.

When an organizational process or an activity loses any practical purpose or motivation, it moves from being an organizational choice (a “rite”, if you want) linked to a specific purpose, to a ritual- something that you do because you are supposed to do it.

Continuity should not be just enforced- but maintained and embedded within ordinary processes, and part of the ordinary activities.

The reason? Because processes derive from organizational needs, and organizational needs evolve also through the interaction between an organization and its environment- day after day.

And those executing processes day after day are the ones who are better positioned to give an “early warning”, i.e. notify when a process gets routinely “troublesome”- before it becomes impossible to execute, and a crisis management activity is required.

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