Black man working large electric phosphate smelting furnace make elemental phosphorus, TVA chemical plant Muscle Shoals, AL). 1942 by Alfred T. Palmer (via LOC)

On Successfully Bringing Change to An Organization

E. Forrest Christian Managing, Theory 2 Comments

Since I’m having a tough time with my case study, I’ll try putting down some things that I think are true about organization change in general.

Forrest’s Postulates on Organizational Change


It’s easiest to change things when everyone else is jumping ship. I call this my “Computer Science Theorem” for reasons I can’t explain. If you want to get a new structure in place, it’s best to bide your time and wait for a crisis. While everyone else is running around yanking their hair out by the handful, move in and take power. This is an old trick of politicians, with many recent examples. If you keep your cool when everyone else loses theirs, you can make out like a bandit. A risk, sure, but one worth taking.

Manufactured crises work just as well as natural ones. I can create the crisis in the organization that will get me power. Most of the time, people cover for incompetents. What if I simply let their incompetence percipitate a crisis? Managers over union workers do this all the time. I recall working for the Dairy Union during University and getting yelled at by three supers in one evening because I helped a guy get his work done. They were trying to fire him and so created a series of situations that he couldn’t accomplish. Or was unlikely to. Most of the rest of us would have finished it off, no problem. They created the crisis of performance and then could fire him.

Manufacturing an enemy also works, which is why Wilson, Johnson and Bush all get regularly accused of doing it.

A fake crisis works just as well as a real one, manufactured or not. I don’t even need a crisis. I simply have to make everyone think that there is a crisis going on. Alan Moore used this to great affect inThe Watchmen back in the 1990s, and indeed it’s a regular feature of science fiction. The non-hero, Ozymandius, creates a fake alien that he teleports into New York City, while psionically killing a good part of the population. The world then unites against the perceived threat of an alien invasion.

Unfortunately, what is also likely to happen is that the minor factions will attempt a separate peace with the aliens to gain advantage.

I recall that in one of the Roman histories, Rome’s conquest of a particular city-state (Mileans?) ends because someone in the city betrays them. There are always unintended consequences, including the possibility that one of your enemies will be smart enough to also make a power grab and take everything.

Still, if you can pull this off, it certainly works. People come together and support the change without having the real threat to your own power base. Most CEOs try this when they talk about “stretch goals” but because they aren’t Machiavellian enough, it never works. Try this at your own risk.

You have to have the supports undergirding your change effort. By this, I mean that every idea has prerequisites that make it possible to be thought. You need these social structures preexisting in your organization in order to succeed. If they’re absent, you will have to create them.

You can’t do change in just any order. This is another one of those obvious points that everyone forgets. Some elements of your change will reinforce the old regime, paradoxically. Other elements will take power away from it.

A few years ago, E. Brynjolfsson, A.A. Renshaw and M. van Alstyne at Sloane produced a tool based on the House of Quality that they called “The Matrix of Change: A Tool for Business Process Reengineering“. It’s worthwhile to read: most of us would have much more successful change efforts if we would determine ahead of time which elements will support and which interferes with the existing practices and the target practices. Sometimes you have to go through a middle step that you will destroy in order to get to where you want to go.

I haven’t heard this in the RO discussions that I’ve been privy to. We tend to say “It’s the way things are supposed to be!” Great, Bruce Rubin, but “how many carpenters am I going to need to create The Void?” Even where people support you, getting to a reinforcing RO is harder than we want to admit. You can’t simply change everything over the weekend — which is what everyone thought that I was asking back a few months ago (I wasn’t). Using a basic tool like the Matrix of Change would help greatly and help you sell the overall project.

Moving to Requisite Organization cannot result in more than one bad quarter. I think you’re risking everything with even one, but regardless, the corporation has to hit its quarterly numbers. We may argue about the level at which worrying is appropriate, but you have to make your estimates.

When the change starts slowing down, the Revenge of the Middle Managers will kick in. I have mentioned The Revenge of the Middle Managers elsewhere under my real name. Normally under a change, the crisis has percipitated allowing a structural change to occur. The middle managers, who are the most threatened by any change in the organization, either sit stunned like someone whacked them in the head with a brick or they act like they support the change wholeheartedly. They know that normally they can say one thing and then recant later. Come on board to show that you’re a team player and then make your move to punish those involved below your boss. They will wait until the change has settled and then attack.

To avoid the Revenge of the Middle Managers, go hard and fast. “Shock and awe”, if you’re a Bushian, “Blitzkrieg” if you studied German war tactics. Push hard, push fast and do not relent on your opponent. Use “overwhelming force” when you can. Use overwhelming new tactics when you can’t. Combine them whenever possible.

These don’t have to be too new: most business people are incredibly thick. But by pushing hard and fast, by hitting another area before your finished with the first, by putting massive performance demands on them and recording their success, you can keep them at bay long enough to figure out how to shuffle everybody. Again, a crisis helps.

And, yes, I realize that I’m using terminology as if they are the enemy. Which I should really take some time and consider. But I’m a consultant and I’m paid for the results after I leave, not for happiness and joy while I’m there. It even helps out my client, since he or she has a big target to blame should anything go wrong. I’ve been sacrificed more than once in meetings, and mostly for things that I wasn’t even part of in any way. It’s part of the job. And, yes, everywhere that I’ve been helping push through a change effort, the company saw major performance increases and a much more satisfied and happy workforce.

That’s enough for today.

Image Credit: “Black man working large electric phosphate smelting furnace make elemental phosphorus, TVA chemical plant Muscle Shoals, AL”. FSA photograph by Alfred T. Palmer, 1942. Via Library of Congress collection.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 2

  1. It all aounds incredibly Machiavellian and entirely compatible with the crisis management and burning platform phenomenon that resides in many organizations. Within these I wouldn’t be too concerned with manufacturing a crisis. These organizations have them occuring on a frequent and regular basis. I do believe that there may be other approaches that might serve to generate something a little more constructive, something that has trust rather than opportunism and deceitfulness (wait until the crisis emerges and then jump in and seize power) associated with it. I think that if I can figure the prescription out I might publish a book on the subject. Do you think it might sell?

  2. Consultants . . . manufactured crises . . . Machiavelli–

    Oh, yes, now I remember the title: if anyone has enjoyed these aspects of catalyzing change, you owe it to yourself to read “Consulting Demons” by Lewis Pinault (HarperCollins 2000) about life inside the big consulting firms.

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