Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

When changing the table of organization is like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic – and making change work

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on March 25, 2012

I have written a number of times in this blog about change management and its issues and I come back to that general topic area again here, and with a specific situation and experience in mind.

• The leadership of a business or other organization generally knows they are in trouble.
• They may not know precisely what the root causes and underlying problems are that are responsible for what they see but they do see problems in communications and in follow-through and they see consequences of that which they cannot simply ignore.
• These are issues and problems, or at least consequences of them that are endangering the organization as a whole.

One response is to periodically and as a perhaps regularly recurring exercise bring in efficiency experts who will apply the business improvement paradigm of the day, and with a big committee set up to go through the exercises involved. Names such as Continuous Quality Improvement come to mind for me here, though the basic idea has been floated under a wide range of labels and brands. And a thick notebook of issues and change proposals is assembled – primarily to collect dust with the other improvement guide books and related committee reports.

One feature that any such exercise generally holds that could potentially offer real value is that these change management programs virtually all start with an assumption that everything is connected. So inefficiencies in one area in a business can and will have effects and side effects coming from it that radiate out and sometimes in unexpected directions and ways – but with significant impact. And a change in one place can correspondingly have effects and side effects that radiate out too, some of which might be positive and some of which might be less so.

I just read a non-business white paper that, while citing a very different context , illustrates how far a single change can reach in a complex system and I briefly cite and discuss that here. The white paper was on red light traffic cameras and on whether they deter drivers running red lights and the dangerous consequences of that – and reduce accident and injury rates as a result, or whether they are simply set up to raise revenue for the local governments that use them, sort of like small town speed traps. This represents a very different type of interconnected system, but I cite it here because just like change in a business’ interconnected systems, a marked change in this would carry unexpected side effects.

The writer of that white paper proposed making this system fairer by putting those red light cameras in every intersection and only charging small fines for drivers who only rarely run red lights – with this serving as a deterrent to the occasional slip into careless driving practices. Then the fines would scale up and even very significantly for repeat offenders.

I see this proposal as also completely reshaping the ways and levels to which drivers use cell phones while driving too, and in its own way that is a greater source of danger on the road than missing yellow and going through on red. If drivers knew they would get ticketed if they run a red light, guaranteed, and they that the amount due for a ticket would go up with repeat offenses so this could get quite expensive, that would deter their doing things that distract them while driving. And if drivers are on their cell phones a lot less when going through intersections they are also going to be on them less while merging into traffic, changing lanes and doing everything else where attention is crucial to safety. But cell phones are not in any way a direct part of this proposal and for either the pro or con side to it. That would be a side effect – even if a likely larger one than the initially intended effect for impact on vehicular and pedestrian safety.

A problem arises when the executives and senior managers who run a business or organization cherry pick the recommendations for change that they find easy and less threatening, and as if all of the parts of their systems and of these overall change proposals were separable, as if floating in their own individual vacuums. Some parts of the overall system look to be functioning less efficiently than others? Let’s move parts of the less efficient lines on the table of organization into the better managed lines so the managers responsible for them can straighten things out.

On the face of things, that sounds reasonable – if the organization is as functionally and operationally as consistent as the insides of a potato. But that is not generally the case, and that is where unconsidered side effects can enter in – though in this case they would not be positive the way secondarily reducing cell phone usage while driving would be.

• Tables of organization and the lines of functional organization and management oversight in them are, at least in principle, organized and maintained so as to create greater efficiencies.
• Effective managers and leaders do hold and exercise generally applicable skills sets, and for many issues and areas of responsibility an expert in one area can successfully manage people with skills in other areas, that they do not hands-on share too. In fact it is a hallmark of management and leadership that as you advance to more senior positions, you do in fact find yourself managing more and more people who exercise skills that you do not have.
• But if this is as far as an analysis going into a change management decision goes, the results are likely to be plagued by the law of unintended consequences. That is because businesses do not in general show the same functional and organizational-needs homogeneity as you would find in the structure of a potato and much of the success and efficiency in those table of organization lines is in effectively marking off and coherently organizing flows of functional processes and the resources that have to be dedicated to fulfilling them. And even if the more senior managers there are not hands-on experts in all of the details they do generally need hands-on, ongoing familiarity and experience with the functional area and a focus on those work flows and the goals they are intended to fulfill. As one possible area for side effect problems, consider the potential here for new and emerging resources and needs disconnects, and arguments over who can claim stake to ownership of what in the way of perhaps suddenly quite limited-seeming resources.

Are there times when you have to move the table of organization around to put your more skilled managers in charge, and regardless of the work flow and the functional areas of specialty involved and any and all potential side effect issues? Yes, definitely – but that is usually a matter of responding to crisis where for example a key manager has a heart attack, or gives you one by leaving for a new position elsewhere and without prior warning. But all of the parts are connected in a business’ underlying systems so any change of this sort would have to be made with a real understanding of the consequences, and both immediate and longer term.

And here is the key point to this posting. Yes, I have seen tables of organization reworked without awareness or consideration as to how the parts all connect and for the potential consequences of this change. But more to the point, the basic issues I write of here apply far more widely than just to the overt and palpably visible changes involved in redesigning the table of organization. The less visible, day to day, a functional or organizational feature of a business system is, the easier it is to look at it and to seek to change it as if it were alone in a vacuum and with little chance of causing those unexpected side effects if it is changed. And when they do happen they are not likely to be positive, extra added benefits on the order of reducing the cell phone and I will add texting-while-driving rates.

• On the positive side, that is why so many groups would have to be involved in those change management exercise meetings – even if office politics were not considered.
• On the negative, that is one of many reasons why little in the way of actual change comes out of those exercises and as spelled out in those dusty committee report notebooks.
• But if they were followed and according to an organized, systems-inclusive vision and policy they might actually bring real, positive value too.

I write this while thinking about a medium sized organization I worked with once, over a period of a few years. Every work experience holds ongoing opportunity for new insight and new lessons learned.

You can find this and related postings at Business Strategy and Operations – 2 (and also see Business Strategy and Operations.)

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