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What Executives Really Mean When They Talk About Change

When business leaders talk about organizational change, they’re really pursuing an ideal.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

In daily life, the word change has nothing to do with business. It refers to an alteration or modification, in anything from a facial expression to the weather. For most people, changing their clothes could be the closest they come to “change management” in a typical day.

But when businesspeople talk about change, they’re generally talking about a much more specific endeavor: a sweeping shift in the structure and capabilities of an organization. At strategy+business, some of our most popular articles use the word change to mean business transformation. When you read between the lines, these authors are not really talking about change per se. That’s just the means to the end of becoming a more productive, high-performing enterprise.

This ideal state of organizational performance may be difficult to realize, or even to put into words, but it’s easy enough to recognize because we’ve all yearned for it. Imagine a thriving, collaborative, and rewarding enterprise, where people work hard, get results, and make their numbers without wasting time on bureaucratic politicking or busywork. It’s socially and environmentally responsible, but not preachy or belabored. It is profitable enough that everyone associated with it—including shareholders, employees, suppliers, and even the most ambitious senior leaders—earns rewards that meet their expectations. For this, and other reasons, a company operating in this optimum state attracts a group of employees so charismatic and creative that others are drawn to work with them.

In this ideal organization, no one works a moment longer than necessary. Everyone has time for a rewarding private life, but they also feel like the company itself is a large, welcoming community. Engineers and marketers meet for drinks some evenings to muse about the priorities of their customers. I’ve been told that Toyota designed its U.S. assembly plants so that people would come off an eight-hour shift feeling energized and satisfied, like they’d just left a health club after a bracing workout. That’s what the end of the day at this ideal organization should feel like.

Change in itself won’t necessarily get a company closer to that ideal state. For one thing, it’s probably already closer than people think. In many cases, the organizational ideal you seek is remarkably similar—at least in its ambience—to that charming backyard workshop, garage, homespun lab, or graduate school classroom where the undertaking was originally conceived. Some of that sensibility has been handed down, surviving through the muddles of the years in between.  Leaders who focus heavily on change—on getting rid of all the snags and pain points that have cropped up since the beginning—forget that the virtues of the original enterprise are probably still there. They forget why they were attracted to that enterprise in the first place.

Instead of using the word change when intervening in a company, maybe we should look for words that more precisely describe the ideal we aspire to. In this case, what the leader wants is not change at all, but a continual state of becoming more like the best of oneself. Many current management trends—Jon Katzenbach’s recent work on culture, the ideas of positive deviance and appreciative inquiry, and much of the “continuous improvement” ethic of lean management—are oriented to this. They all represent ways of paying mutual attention to one another and to the things that matter most. It’s not really change, or even evolution; it’s the natural flow of life, when you are attuned to it.

This fits more closely with the way human society was organized for millennia. Before the Industrial Revolution, most people grew up expecting to live all their lives in a locked-in society, unaware of alternatives. Even entrepreneurs were part of great trading and merchant lineages. They spent their lives fulfilling business relationships that had been forged generations before; they married deliberately to ensure that their family-owned enterprises would continue. Change was not a cure for organizational problems; it was a source of chaos that people often spent their lives trying to avoid.

I recognize that innovation requires creative disruption, and that change can feel liberating—especially when we have been shackled by conventional practices. Few of us would want to return to the stagnation of medieval family businesses or craft guilds. But at the same time, there is a human appreciation for stability that lingers in our blood. Maybe that’s why the business culture, which is often seen from the outside as a hotbed of dysfunction, tends to attract people who are courteous and emotionally regulated. (I suspect there is far more destructive clamor behind the closed doors of a university or non-profit, or a family for that matter, than in most boardrooms.) If we truly believe in changing a business, we have to focus our attention on the aspiration, not the alteration. It’s not change that we’re looking for, but rather a kind of collective virtue. Maybe we can’t quite put it into words, so we use the word change as shorthand, but we should try to be more rigorous in the way we describe it. That way, it will be easier to recognize when we see it.

This blog post was adapted from an introduction written for New Eyes: The Human Side of Change Leadership, edited by Joanne Flinn (Change Leaders/Fastprint, 2013).

Art Kleiner

Art Kleiner was formerly editor-in-chief of strategy+business.

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