The Rhythm of Change - Is Full Speed Ahead Always Right?

It seems that the prevailing business credo these days is “keep on changing”; if you don’t your competition will eat you alive. In the midst of all this frenetic activity, say Professors Quy Huy and Henry Mintzberg, perhaps management gurus have overlooked an important perspective: that stability and continuity actually form the basis of our experience and therefore provide a context for how we view change. In an article appearing in the <i>Sloan Management Review,</i> they assert that there may even be times when change should be resisted; for example, when an organization should simply continue pursuing a perfectly good strategy.

by Quy Huy, Henry Mintzberg
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

In this article appearing in the <i>Sloan Management Review </i> authors Quy Nguyen Huy, Associate Professor of Strategy and Management at INSEAD and Henry Mintzberg, the John Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, start off with a little piece of advice for managers: turn off the hype and look out the window. The advice is crucial, they say, during these hyper-turbulent times, when managers take seriously the job of continually initiating and adjusting to change, and when the prevailing wisdom agrees that change, by definition, is good and resistance to change is bad.

The fact is many things have remained unchanged throughout our recent history; the engine of the automobile you drive (used in Ford’s Model T) and even the buttons on the shirt you wear (the same as used by your grandparents). This, indeed, is a good thing, say the authors, because prolonged and pervasive change means anarchy. While they are not advocating inertia, the authors offer a framework whereby one can develop pragmatic, coherent approaches to thinking about change.

They suggest that there are three types of change processes. Although a lot of attention is focused on the type of change that is imposed dramatically from the top, Huy and Mintzberg believe that this view should be tempered by the realization that effective organizational change often emerges inadvertently (organic change) or develops in a more orderly fashion (systematic change). Because dramatic change alone can be just drama, systematic change by itself can be deadening, and organic change without the other two can be chaotic, the authors argue that they must be combined or, more often, sequenced and paced over time. When functioning in a kind of dynamic symbiosis, dramatic change can instead provide impetus, systematic change can instill order, and organic change can generate enthusiasm.

Dramatic change should be initiated in times of crisis or of great opportunity when power is concentrated and there is great slack to be leveraged. It can range from rationalizing costs, restructuring the organization and repositioning strategy to reframing the organization’s mind-set and revitalizing its culture. Usually, dramatic change is commanded from the leadership, in the expectation of compliance by everyone else.

Systematic change is slower, less ambitious, more focused, and more carefully constructed than dramatic change. Often it is promoted by staff groups and consultants who handle planning and organizational development. Over the years, many approaches to systematic change have appeared, including quality improvement, work reprogramming, benchmarking, strategic planning, and so on. As the nature of these approaches suggests, systematic change draws heavily on technique, and, in that sense, change is imported to the organization.

Organic change tends to arise from the ranks without being formally managed. It often involves messy processes with vague labels like venturing, learning and politicking and is nurtured behind the scenes in the “skunkworks” of big companies such as 3M or Intel and in those near-legendary garage startups that spawned industry giants like Apple and Dell Computers.

The authors’ overall conclusion is that neither dramatic nor systematic nor organic change works well in isolation. Dramatic change has to be balanced by order and engagement throughout the organization. Systematic approaches require leadership and depend on broad engagement. And organic change, though perhaps the most natural of the three approaches, has to be manifested eventually in a systematic way supported by leadership.

Sloan Management Review, Summer 2003.

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