The Truth about Change

By Peter Block

Conventional wisdom says that change has to happen from the top down. This belief––that if top management doesn’t support the move toward partnership nothing important will happen––is another way we thwart the move to stewardship and express our dependency. It does have a certain appeal though:

  • Top management likes it because it keeps them feeling that they are in charge. That they are managing the change process.
  • Staff groups and consultants like it because it puts them in intimate contact with those who have power, privilege, and wealth. It also makes their selling job a lot easier.
  • Middle management and below like it because it lets them off the hook. Getting sponsorship from the top provides safety.

In reality, it is only change in the direction of high control, centralization, and economic constraints that can be implemented successfully from the top. People in top management have the power to legislate, so changes that are suited to legislation can work well coming from the top. Layoffs, plant closings, and cost restraints are nicely legislated. Changes focusing on customer service, culture, quality, or lean operations do not fall into this category. They require ownership and responsibility––changes in mind-set and beliefs, not changes in practice and procedure. Any change effort predicated on the belief that strategy comes from the top, tactics come from the middle, and it is up to the bottom to implement them is no change at all.

Another generally accepted belief is that change must be implemented across the board. In fact, efforts to implement change simultaneously across the organization just produce cosmetic change and are another way patriarchy prevents its own healing. Executives and consultants talk about large-system change. Writers and reporters document organization-wide changes. No one in the middle or at the bottom, however, experiences change that way. Different departments and divisions and units within divisions will change at a pace and in a way that they determine themselves.

Authentic change in governance systems is idiosyncratic; it is not amenable to consistency and predictability. Building an institution based on partnership and service means that each unit needs to be in charge of its own transition. Some units will say no—if not in words, then through compliance and passivity. Creating the demand or the expectation that we will all move together, along a common path, drives doubt and resistance underground. Human systems are too complex to engineer their complete transformation. If we begin the dialogue with the promise that we will act in concert, then what you will get is a lot of acting and a short concert. Doubt, caution, and reservation need to be honored for a change process to have real effect. Efforts that are built on the expectation that the whole system is going to change will create the mere illusion of change and only slow down the process.

Organizational reform is a learning process, not an installation process. Different units will learn different things at different rates. Let the strategy acknowledge that fact and not pressure units to move in unison or before they are ready. There are certain things, of course, that all units have in common. Common customers, goals, products/services, owners, and boundaries. These are what form community. But the intention to move the whole organization at one time, from the top, toward one culture, by one means, is destined to evoke compliance, not commitment. It becomes high persuasion, not high performance.