Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pixie dust and magic wands

[Editor's note: Compuserve is closing down its OurWorld website hosting after many years. So I decided to resurrect some articles I had online there. This one dates from 1994. Not much has changed about organizational behavior in the intervening 15 years.]

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Fads and why they fail.

Lots of management theories have come and gone during the past century. When I was a supervisor at Ohio Bell in the late '70s, Management by Objectives was the hot theory that would solve all the company's ills, reduce labor strife, and guarantee that we focused on the important issues. Nowadays, MBO is old hat (even if recycled in The One Minute Manager) and Total Quality Management (TQM) books fight for shelf space with those for re-engineering corporations, reinventing government, activity-based costing (ABC), teaming, zero defects, and learning organizations.

Why do managers keep seeking the Holy Grail of management theory? Because the last technique no longer works, if it ever did. Managers understand that insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The logical conclusion, then, is that something else is needed. What managers seldom look at, though, is the way they seek to implement change.

Most management books are written for upper management, who are viewed as the ones who can direct change to occur within their organizations. They're also the ones who have the budgets to hire the consultants who write the books. The result of this focus is a top-down approach to creating change.

In the usual top-down approach, management become the cheerleaders for the new paradigm that will save their collective skins. They ensure that people get training in the new techniques. They lead very visible large-scale efforts that require lots of studies, lots of time, and lots of consultants and facilitators. Sometimes, they get lucky and get the results they want. More times, they don't.

The problem is that the fad du jour is treated like pixie dust or a magic wand. You wave it over the organization and wait for the magic to happen by itself. Yet substantial change only happens when people throughout the organization buy into, understand, and apply the prescribed theory. Change has to happen at the grass roots as well as at the top.

How you go about creating change is as at least as important as the change itself.

Stephen Covey tells us that creating new habits requires mastering the new skills, knowing when to use them, and having the desire to do so. Creating organizational change is akin to creating new corporate habits: the same rules apply. The management theories tell you what to accomplish, what skills you need to master. They seldom tell you how to get there.

Knowing and doing are two different things.

My boss and I were returning from yet another TQM training class when he bemoaned, "You know, TQM is a great theory. I just wish I knew how to apply it!"

We were liberally dosed with pixie dust. We learned a lot about TQM—except for the most important lesson of all: learning how to use it in the real world! Supervisors had "incentives" written into their performance plans (i.e. MBO) declaring that they would promote the use of TQM. Top management sported buttons showing an inverted organizational pyramid, declaring that they were there to support the front line people at the "top". People in the organization could truthfully say that they were aware of TQM, and that management generally promoted its use. But no one ever asked them if they were finding applications, integrating the TQM philosophy into their daily work.

There were some success stories. The most notable was the effort to revamp the entire process for submitting travel requests and processing the claims for reimbursement. This was a large project that involved several organizations. The head of the effort was our executive officer, someone with enough clout to authorize the changes once the new system was designed.

But there were also horror stories. One "Process Action Team" was so gung-ho that they dared to implement changes, without getting a by-your-leave from the department head first. He fully supported their studying the processes in the department, but taking action was another matter. The Process Action Team became a Process Study Team. Oddly enough, enthusiasm for TQM dropped sharply. The pattern repeated in other departments.

The department head knew about TQM. But he hadn't figured out how to unleash it without colliding with his values and beliefs about the proper way to enforce the "chain of command". The philosophy hadn't sunk in.