Sunday, July 20, 2008

Organizational Change is like Sausage

Eric D. Brown wrote a short post on his leadership organizational change blog. While I understand the sentiment, I don’t really draw the same conclusions.

I hear a lot of other folks say many of the same things about the way the tools of leadership and change management make them feel. This often reminds me of Samuel Clemens' quote about how "[t]hose who respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made." Organizational change and true leadership cannot be apolitical simply because they fundamentally are about dealing with people and their varied interests.

His primary complaints about the book he read is that it appears to be giving the reader advice on how to play the political game to manipulate people into doing what you want. When put that way these things really sound pejorative. However without further context it is hard to tell. Motivation for manipulation is critical to understanding the ethics of persuasion, just ask the mother of any two year old trying to get them to eat something "good for them".

It is all fine and good to say that a good leader “should already have people aligned with the necessary changes and have them ready to implement change.” But how does the leader do that exactly? Well, one way is to create a sense of urgency. To say that if a leader is doing their job a sense of urgency already exists is just plain silly. That implies that a leader doing their job has created a sense of urgency. But that’s exactly the advice Eric appears to argue against.

Further, Eric posits that organizational change should be about changing the game not playing it. But implementing change within an organization in a smooth and orderly fashion requires that you work within the existing structure to gain support for your change. This is particularly true if the change is to the game itself.

The “political acumen” and “art of persuasion” that disturb him are simply tools in the toolbox of a good leader. A good leader without political acumen will get eaten alive by some jackass that out flanks them in the executive ranks. A jobless leader is not particularly effective. A good leader without mastery of “the art of persuasion” is an oxymoron since a good leader persuades (not forces) people to follow them, even when the way forward is unclear or difficult.

I suspect that there was something else about this book that set off Eric's alarm bells. I’ve had this happen several times with books where the advice they were giving was clearly “good” yet I hated (and hate is not too strong for how I felt about some of them) something about it. The tone, the subtext, something set me off. I’ll bet if Eric looks closer he’ll discover the same thing.

Eric has many great posts about change management and leadership and I think he understands how technology fits into and can help drive the very changes he advocates (that's why I read his blog). But I think that like a lot of other people before him, he went off track on this one.


Eric Brown said...

Hi Bruce - I posted this comment on my blog and wanted to cross-post to yours as well.

Good stuff and thanks for making me take a step back and think about what I said.

You make some excellent points here...and are 99% correct.

I think what bothered me about the book the most was the comment about 'creating a sense of urgency' and the description of how to 'create' that urgency. My thoughts, which I may not have described well in my original post, is that you shouldn't have to 'create' anything....the sense of urgency should already be a part of the culture of the organization. The term 'create' is what bothers me most as it conjures up an idea of 'making something out of nothing'.

Now...back to your critique.

How does this urgency come into existence? At some point it does have to brought to the forefront of the organizational mindset....perhaps that is what 'create a sense of urgency' really meant to the authors.

Your points on Political acumen and art of persuasion are spot on...I definitely downplayed these as a necessary skill set for leaders to have. These are skills that are necessary tools for any leader to have...especially to keep the jackass' at bay :) The bothersome aspect to these skills were how the book authors were telling readers to use these to 'play the game' rather than change the game.

The book was "Creating the Project Office: A Manager's Guide to Leading Organizational Change"...which turned out to have some really interesting topics in it. I still can't recommend it completely though because I felt that the authors were pointing people down some roads that just don't follow my own thought processes on leading organizational change.

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