A Strategic Perspective on Managing Change
Much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.
Professor Peter Drucker (1909-2005).
Educator, management consultant, author.
A striking if unsurprising feature of the business and management literature in recent years has been the pervasiveness of the concept of ‘change’ and its many semantic variants, for example, ‘transformation’, ‘transitional’, ‘break-the-china’, ‘stop-the-rot’ ‘transfiguration’ and so on, ad nauseam. Despite the proliferation of change models or its synonym-stretching meaning, the dimensions of change are essentially twofold:
- Antecedents, those factors which ‘trigger’ the need for change.
- Change as a process, a set of management actions that transform organizations from a given state towards a strategically determined desired state over a cumulative time frame.
We will discuss each dimension in turn, but first a caveat. One of the most respected writers on change management has been Rosabeth Moss Kanter, whose early work (1983, 1989) essentially defined the topic or at least brought it to its broader public domain. In a highly influential text on how companies experience change alongside the role of leadership in guiding it, she and her colleagues drew attention to the shallowness of much of the discussion of change in the mainstream literature. In the light of the concluding remarks of the previous chapter, Kanter et al. are worth quoting at length here as a preface to the strategic and organizational challenges of change which we explore in this chapter (Kanter et al., 2001):
… the danger lurking in many discussions of organizational change is that the whole thing starts to sound much simpler than it is. Too much credit is given to leaders when things go well, and too much blame when they go poorly. Yet, despite decades of very good advice to organizations about change, we are struck by how many failures there are and how much can go wrong. Even though both the reformers and the revolutionaries are, in their own way, utopians, believing in organizational perfectibility, the sad fact is that, almost universally, organizations change as little as they must, rather than as much as they should.
The dimensions of change are captured on two axes of our adapted nexus model. The change antecedents, the ‘triggers’ of change, are rooted in the relationship between the organization and its market environments. The change process, meanwhile, is rooted within the organization-strategy axis and is modelled in the Process category illustrated in Figure 94.
Changes in strategic direction and its counterpart, organizational restructuring, are not new phenomena, particularly in discontinuous business environments. The key difference between the current phase of organizational change and those of the past is the greater intensity of competition and the progressive trend towards deregulation and liberalisation of markets. As Heygate (1992) notes,
… when competitive pressure reduces the time available for redesigning processes and building skills to a maximum of only two or three years, [the] challenge becomes far more difficult still.
In addressing this challenge many organizations have had the limits of their capabilities exposed. Ultimately, as we have aimed to demonstrate in the last two chapters, operationalising organizational solutions falls fairly and squarely on the shoulders of leadership and management. And, with this observation noted, we give the final words of this chapter to Canadian professor Henry Mintzberg (2011) who for more than four decades has consistently profiled the realities of the management task when confronted by organizational complexity:
Managing is rife with conundrums. Every way a manager turns, there seems to be some paradox or enigma lurking.
In the next and final chapter, we add one more layer of complexity: the strategic management challenges associated with the numerous paradoxes encountered when addressing the diverse demands of multiple stakeholders.
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All content © Colin Edward Egan, 2021