Abrahamson spends considerable time fleshing out how to implement creative recombination through three distinct "action techniques" he calls "cloning, customizing, and translating." Each action requires looking internally to see what components of the organization are working in the desired way, and adapting them to create a new model. Action techniques can be applied in many different contexts to change social networks, organizational structure, culture, and business processes.
Successful "cloning," Abrahamson explains, involves taking a fundamental capability from one division and replicating it in another -- or across the entire firm. Cloning can be done by moving people around, through process transference, or by requiring the entire organization to adopt a standard way of doing business. For example, when GKN's Meineke automotive franchise developed a Web-based training course for some franchises, it discovered it could roll out the course, unmodified, to all its new and existing franchises.
"Customizing" refers to refitting and reusing parts of the organization. It is more difficult than cloning because executives must consider how a particular process should be modified to meet new market demands. Abrahamson notes this was a lesson the Walt Disney Company learned well when it tried and failed to clone its Disney theme park formula in a location outside Paris. He argues Disney would have done better had it used a customization approach to understand why and how Disney theme parks worked so well in the U.S. and Japan, and what aspects would not work in a European context.
"Translating" is the most complex of the recombination techniques. It forces executives to interpret and redefine their approach in order to meet different needs in the marketplace. An example: a multinational that must translate its corporate values so that they are expressed in words and in processes that are appropriate to and understood in each country where the company operates.
Too many executives, Abrahamson argues, use a clean-sheet approach and a totally new model when taking on a new assignment, rather than looking within at what is already working. The result is often initiative overload, change-related chaos, repetitive changes, and employee cynicism. We agree with Abrahamson's view here, and believe this book provides the most practical and useful counsel on the subject of change management of the three books we reviewed. The concept of creative recombination forces executives to think through exactly what the company's assets are, how they are deployed, why they are valuable, and who is capable of driving the change. This is a pragmatic approach to change: Build on what you have rather than start from scratch.
Change is hard; transformation is harder still, whether it involves an individual or an entire organization. Together, these books show why those at the top of an organization need to undergo deep personal change in order to alter the behavior of their organization.
John Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a vice president with Booz Allen Hamilton in New York. Mr. Jones is a specialist in organization design, process reengineering, and change management.
Elizabeth Powers (email@example.com), a senior associate in Booz Allen Hamilton's New York office, specializes in change management for companies that are designing and implementing new operating models.