MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Three perspectives on organizational change: more answers from MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen

John Van Maanen

Over 3,500 registrants signed up for our most recent webinar, Three Perspectives on Organizational Change. During the event, MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen discussed innovative approaches to change management and delved into three different perspectives embraced by most organizations: strategic, political, and cultural. In this post, Professor Van Maanen responds to some questions from webinar attendees that were not addressed during the live event.

With the rapid pace of technological advancement, as well as increasing globalization with its accompanying challenges, which lens is the most undervalued or most challenging to get right? Which lenses most commonly contribute to failures for organizations to execute well on change management strategies?

The cultural lens is the most difficult to "get right" in the sense of having a culture that fits the challenges the organization is presently facing. It certainly is the most vexing to both diagnose and alter, in terms of difficulty and time. Change that threatens valued professional or occupational identities is particularly problematic. My sense is that if you can figure out a way to work within and with respect for the various cultures represented in the organization, change is somewhat easier. Culture is not a variable that one tunes up or down. It is a set of deeply embedded habits and ways of looking at the world that works and works well for cultural members. So, there are limits, serious ones, to the extent which cultural change can be directed and hastened.

Can organizations survive if there are competing perspectives between workgroups? E.g., if one department is politically powerful and another is strategically powerful, is it best to lean towards one or the other method?

To some extent this on-going battle for power and control of strategic moves is built into organizational life. It contributes motivation, ambition, innovation, and drama, and works at the individual and group levels. One fights for what one thinks is best for the organization (strategy) and marshals all the evidence one can collect in its support. The loyal opposition does the same. If power--the ability to get things done--is not so imbalanced, things generally work out and adjustments can be made. Tinkering is continual.

Over time, culture usually helps select which groups have power, and those groups select strategic designs that support their position. When the lack of fit with the environment is apparent to all (falling revenues, unmet goals, customer abandonment, etc.), a change movement (from outside or inside or both) typically forms to shift the power balance. If successful, strategic design changes usually follow in its wake. To cling to one lens or the other is a recipe for failure.

Can you give an example of a good tactic for influencing or persuading resistance to change?

Listen, listen, listen. Without a deep understanding of the reasons for resistance, change is difficult, if not impossible. Of course, a Draconian solution--getting rid of resistance leaders--sometimes seems to work, but typically new leaders arise. People don't resist change for illogical reasons. They may fear status or power loss, the unknown, expectations of more work, worries about new skills being required (i.e., learning anxiety), disrespect. They may harbor past resentments, or slights or, perhaps most common, hold the view that the change being promoted will not serve the organization well.

To begin to have any influence requires an understanding of the grounds for resistance and taking it seriously. This requires making the right moves, which begin with diagnosis of the present situation, including identifying the targets of change and their situation (i.e., how they view the situation). Yet people fall on a continuum of resistance, just as some will resist, others will undoubtedly favor the change--and if there aren't any to be found, rethink the change effort! Knowing just who is who is absolutely critical to the change effort. Without a champion or two within the target community, nothing can happen. If the change is beneficial for most, surely supporters will be found.

How do we inculcate and bring in culture orientation to new employees, especially to fresh recruits from colleges?

The traditional way is through heavy handed socialization mechanisms: Selective hiring practices (hire recruits that resemble one another), formal training (and lengthy), collective (bring people in batches), serial (veterans school the rookies), sequential (each step builds on the previous step) and is disjunctive (a break with the past). These are the tried and true practices and processes that make and sustain a culture; make it salient and attractive to recruits.

Consider how urban police agencies or large Japanese organizations socialize their entering members. This, of course, costs a bloody fortune and passes on an existing culture which may or may not be entirely beneficial to the future of the organization. It certainly does not promote innovative members. One creative way to think about building a culture is to present fresh recruits with a set of problematic challenges--challenges that must be solved collectively--and then get out of the way as they attend to these challenges informally. The way these problems are addressed becomes, if successful, cultural ways of solving problems. This imitates the early stages of successful start-ups.

From your experience, what are the most frequent reasons why change initiatives fail?

Without question, the most frequent reason for the failure of change initiatives is not taking into account the political and cultural realities of organizational life. The failures are often associated with brilliant strategic insight but precious little appreciation for what Doug McGregor long ago called "the human side of enterprise." The majority of change efforts rely on a strategy hashed out in isolation by senior managers (and their consultants) and introduced to the organization in a one-way fashion. A strategic design is presented to the organization as a fait accompli, complete with a logic and argument that is believed to address current problems. It is justified by endless figures and charts and is cast often as a planned process in which, if everybody plays their respective part, good things will follow. Little consideration is given to how the organization presently operates and whose proverbial ox is about to be gored. Who are the prospective winners and losers if the change is implemented as planned? What are the established ways of doing things now that will have to change if the initiative is taken up. In short, these are political and cultural barriers to change that must be overcome first if the planned change is to take effect. And this is--in a word--complicated.

To hear more about MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen's thoughts on organizational change, enroll in one of his courses: Greater Boston Executive Program, March 6–May 1; Implementing Industry 4.0: Leading Change in Manufacturing and Operations, April 4–5; or Leading Change in Complex Organizations, May 14–19.


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