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Published: November 30, 2004

 
 

Best Business Books 2004: Change Management

Changing Minds comes alive when Gardner uses narrative examples to show how these levers work in different contexts, ranging from changing the minds of a nation to changing minds within a business unit to changing one's own mind. A comparison of Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton illustrates the mastery of all six levers required to change the minds of a large and diverse population. Here these leaders use logical, simple stories based on facts, couched in rhetoric that speaks to people's hearts, backed up by multiple visual images, directly addressing sources of resistance. Both politicians used their rise from middle-class backgrounds to relate to a broad spectrum of people; both were able to judge which arguments or stories would be most persuasive to a given audience. In contrast to Margaret Thatcher, however, Bill Clinton was unable to achieve transformative goals, in part, Gardner argues, because his behavior undermined his skills as a communicator: "Clinton seemed unable to 'go to the mat' for issues in which he apparently believed."

A more practical example for business leaders is the story told in the book of Lord John Browne's transformation of British Petroleum in the early 1990s. Gardner describes how Lord Browne applied the concept of redescriptive representation to engage his work force in a change from a hierarchical company with low accountability and initiative to a flatter organization that valued experimentation and the sharing of best practices. Gardner shows how Lord Browne, having developed his new strategy, organization design, and implementation plan for BP, convinced a team of managers to adopt the new way of thinking to overcome their resistance, to help the entire organization embrace the new model, and to make a public commitment to achieving results.

Creative Recombination
In Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos, and Employee Burnout (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), Columbia Business School professor Eric Abrahamson criticizes business process reengineering, and its rallying cry of "don't automate, obliterate," as a painful, risky, and disruptive practice that destabilizes firms.

Abrahamson's central thesis is that most change programs are incorrectly centered on the concept of creative destruction, that a company going through a major transformation must break down its current structure, process, or culture in order to create something new and better. This destruction, he believes, is what causes pain, anxiety, and resistance among employees, and ultimately leads to failed transformation programs.

Abrahamson takes the position that "creative recombination" is a better way to reinvent a company. Most companies, he claims, have capabilities that can be reassembled to create a winning new direction more easily and effectively than one could be created by destroying the old. His idea is to redeploy people rather than to fire or replace them; to salvage and refine processes rather than to reengineer them completely; to recombine organization structures around their key components rather than to reorganize them radically; to revive old cultural values rather than to redefine them; and to preserve and leverage social networks rather than to eliminate them through too much automation.

Change Without Pain is filled with case studies and stories that describe how managers successfully identified and reassembled their companies' components to create capabilities that excelled in the marketplace.

Early in the book, Abrahamson uses the example of GKN PLC, the U.K.-based automotive and aerospace parts supplier and one of the oldest companies listed on the U.K. stock exchange, to illustrate his notion of creative recombination and how it differs from creative destruction. For example, in the 1980s a high level of contract cancellations was a chronic problem for GKN. Each time the company landed a new contract, it would quickly assign engineers to the project. The trouble was that when a customer canceled or postponed a contract with GKN, many of its engineers were left idle. Instead of laying them off, several of GKN's business units decided to "rent out" their engineers to other companies for short-term assignments. This created a fluid pool of engineers who could easily be reassigned if a contract was canceled, or be pulled back into GKN if it needed them. Initially, individual business units adopted the practice, but it was so successful in increasing revenue and profits and improving staff skills that GKN eventually made it a formal part of its business model. Abrahamson writes: "GKN recombined its reputation for attracting top flight engineering talent as well as its talent for developing engineering skills, and its extensive network of contracts, to start what was, for all intents and purposes, a highly sophisticated employment agency."

 
 
 
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