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Organisational change: The messy reality

pp_default1 member Chris Rodgers challenges the mainstream perspective of organisational change by taking a look at the messy reality of it and the illusion of management control.






Stories abound of change efforts that have petered out, failed to deliver the expected benefits or disappointed those who were once their most enthusiastic supporters. All too often, the initial enthusiasm, intense activity and (frequently) large-scale investment are followed by disillusionment, cynicism and a feeling of wasted effort.


"When the sought-after benefits fail to materialise, this is most often blamed on poor implementation rather than unsound thinking."

Can we escape from this pattern into something more useful or is it inevitable that events will take this course?

The illusion of management control

Much of the conventional wisdom around organisational change and performance is based upon an idealised model of organisations in which:


  • People and groups behave rationally, within clearly defined structures, processes and systems;
  • Problems and events are explained in terms of linear chains of cause and effect;
  • Seamless and identifiable links exist between the various components of the organisation and between strategy and operations;
  • The hidden, messier and more informal aspects of everyday organisational behaviour are seen as being illegitimate and/or signs of dysfunction that 'proper management' will cure;
  • Managers are seen as external, objective observers of what goes on around them; and
  • Good leaders/managers are in control of the internal dynamics of the organisation and how it relates to its 'external environment' – 'if you're not in control, you're not leading', so to speak

As a result, highly detailed plans and budgets, formal organisational charts, extensive target setting and similar tools dominate managers' agendas, as they attempt to realise this ideal. Such techniques as Kotter's neatly packaged, eight-step change process, Kaplan and Norton's reassuringly detailed Balanced Scorecard, and even Conner's notion of a passive, 'waiting to be done to' Change Target, offer hard-pressed managers the promise of control, predictability and successful change.

When the sought-after benefits fail to materialise, this is most often blamed on poor implementation rather than unsound thinking. By adopting a 'do it better and get it right' stance, failure is rationalised as a shortfall in execution and the flawed assumptions remain to fight another day.

The messy reality

Despite the common-sense appeal of these approaches, the desired results frequently fail to materialise. So managers need to move beyond their traditional thinking and practice, if they are to get to grips with what's really going on in their organisations and understand how they might influence the dynamics that are determining the success or otherwise of planned changes.


"The challenge for managers is to understand and actively engage with the messy (i.e. socially complex) process of everyday interaction."

The informal processes, social relationships and political coalitions that exist in the shadow side of organisations have a major impact on organisational performance and capability. But these form through a process of self-organisation; they cannot be mandated by managers. Nor can they be controlled in any meaningful way. Ultimate outcomes emerge from this complex social process of self-organising interaction, in which managers' formal intentions, strategies and plans play a part – but only a part. In these circumstances, relying on 'common sense' is not always sensible and 'conventional wisdom' is not always wise.

So what can managers do?

Well, this 'messy reality' also means that there are no simple, if-you-do-this-you'll-get-that formulae. Instead, the challenge for managers is to understand and actively engage with the messy (i.e. socially complex) process of everyday interaction. This does not mean abandoning any sense of intention, setting aside all notions of formal leadership practice, or abdicating responsibility for results. But it does mean doing so without any certainty of the outcomes that might ultimately emerge.

And this, in turn, means focusing on the here and now of everyday conversations – their own and others' – through which people make sense of what's going on and decide how they are going to act.

In 'Informal Coalitions', I used the following quote, from Proust, to introduce one of its chapters:


  • "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes."

If managers begin to see their organisations through new eyes, and reflect on their own in-the-moment experience of what's actually happening within them – they might begin to act differently. And if they act differently, they'll get different results.

Chris Rodgers is an independent consultant and author of 'Informal Coalitions' (Palgrave 2007).

14 Responses

  1. Unique characteristics of people in interaction
    Thanks Rory.

    As you imply, change in organisations is continuous. This is not the case because managers say so. It is a result of the natural dynamics of organisation. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, you can’t step in the same river twice. Things are in constant flux. These dynamics also mean that, except under very limited conditions, the relationship between cause and effect is impossible to determine. Outcomes cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty. Nor can they be controlled in the way that most ‘change management’ literature implies that they can.

    At the same time, in contrast to what we find in the natural world, the peopling of organisations by human beings brings a step-change in the level and nature of complexity. Indeed, the defining characteristic of organisation is that it is an emergent property of people in interaction. In the same way that you rightly challenge the view that change is a ‘thing’, organisation doesn’t exist outside of the ongoing process of people in interaction. And it is through this self-organising process that outcomes emerge. Some of these interactions take place in the formal arenas of the organisation and generate formal outputs; others take place informally, and their outcomes remain in the shadows. Importantly, despite their seemingly ‘given’ nature, formal elements (such as strategies, structures, systems and so on) only become ‘real’ as these are perceived, interpreted and acted upon through people’s everyday interactions. This is also true of the formal messages (or lack of them) emanating from on high.

    Because of the unique characteristics of human interaction – involving such things as emotion, meaning, imagination, anticipation, fantasy, reflection and self-reflection, power relationships and political processes – it can be unhelpful to use examples from the natural world to explain the complex social dynamics of organisation. What is distinctive, though, is that outcomes emerge through the medium of language and communication. So conversations are key. They are not a “small part” of what organisation is about, they are its very essence. Managers therefore need to pay attention to the dynamics of everyday interaction; acting with the intention of shifting the patterns in beneficial ways – even though, as you say, they can have no certainty of outcome.

  2. Still missing the poinjt?
    Hi Chris Ruth and others,
    I returnto my original point about organisational complexity and Kevin Kelly. Even in this enlightened thread I think we are still missing an essential point which is that we talk about Change and Change initiatives if if they are a given thing, an almost physical quality in themselves.
    I would suggest that it’s rather similar to using object nouns like Leadership in the same way. The fact (as it seems to me) is that if an organisation wishes to alter what it is doing, how it is doing it or what it’s core ovjectives are, some kind of change will happen whether the desired outcomes are realised or not.
    Any ‘resistance’ to change will partly be completely ‘natural’; it will be the organisation’s deep-rooted immune system kicking in.
    “what do you mean, the organisation’s immune system? what are you talking about”
    Well, our organisations are organic not mechanical, and complex not linear.
    The complex communication networks spoken of earlier in this thread are but one small part of the complex adaptive system which we might be trying to play a part in changing. But so are others, and not necessarily in the same directions.
    We need to persuade managers and leaders that they are already out of control, and cannot be in control. They may, if they are very skilled, open and sensitive, (and even lucky), be able to influence others in the direction of change, but they may never be able to know their real impact because it is not likely to be what they or others think it should be – and this is both healthy and inevitable.

  3. The sound of silence…
    I confess to feeling that the change process is easily over-complicated. Wrestling with the logistics of corporate change can it seems be all-consuming. Sadly, good communications are often abandoned in the rush. And the very people who need to buy in to a strategy –the employees – are ignored.

    I like Stephen Walkers (below) simple take on it – drawing our attention to the danger of the absence of communication. Continuing Stephen’s approach, here’s my take on what silence might say about an organisation, and what employees might infer:

    – We don’t know what we’re doing: Maybe we’re not telling you because we don’t know ourselves.
    – Inferred conclusion: If you don’t understand your objectives, then you shouldn’t expect much from us.

    – We don’t believe in it: We think we know what we’re doing (because someone has told us) but we don’t believe it. So we aren’t going to risk embarrassment by going on the record with something that then falls flat.
    – Inferred conclusion: Why should we commit to the organisation’s objectives if you can’t?

    – We’re too busy to tell you: This message often comes sweetened: we’re too busy now, but we’ll tell you when (we decide) you need to know; you’re so important we want to get the message just right.
    – Inferred conclusion: We don’t matter. We’re not spoken to when we feel we should be, but rather when you think we should be. Clearly we are out in the cold, so you can keep your message.

    – We haven’t thought through the implications of our silence: Maybe we’re aware of the risks inherent in the points above but the effects haven’t registered. For example, we haven’t thought about what it means if, in the absence of a message from us, information is obtained from the media, or worse, a competitor.
    -Inferred conclusion: We are working for incompetents.

    – We don’t care about the implications: We know the risks, but we just don’t care: We’ll just tough it out. Where will our employees go? Sales are OK. Dividends are still being paid.
    – Inferred conclusion: We’re off.

    My point is that a communication campaign is as vital – possibly more so – than the strategy it supports. Of all the corporate messages broadcast, the nosiest one is silence.

  4. Pushing the boundaries
    Thanks, Ruth, for continuing the conversation.

    You ask if the boundaries need pushing in relation to managers’ willingness and ability to engage with this conversational view of organisational change. I would say “Yes”, of course. But to do so requires a number of important questions to be addressed head-on.

    First, why should managers move into this ‘conversational space’ at all?

    We are told that it’s action, not talk, which is the stuff of leadership. Talk is ordinarily dismissed as a barrier to action (“cut the talk and get to the action”, “idle talk”, and so on). In reality, though, leadership is enacted solely through the ways in which managers speak with (and, hopefully, listen to) their staff; through the ‘messages’ staff pick up from managers’ everyday behaviours; and through the ways in which both of these frame the ‘institutionalised’ aspects of organisation, which are themselves an imprint of past conversations. So ‘talk’ is a leader’s primary ACTION tool.

    Secondly, what do “improved conversations” look like?

    Paradoxically, given the above comments, it is not what managers say directly that matters so much. Rather it’s what people say to each other, as a result of what they have heard and other emerging events. It’s through these everyday interactions that they make sense of what’s going on and decide how they will act. And it is through the interplay of these local actions that organisation-wide outcomes emerge. So the change-leadership challenge is not so much about having ‘better’ conversations. It is more about tapping into these informal conversational networks to try to shift the patterns and content of the conversations that people are having with each other.

    Thirdly, how can managers remain in control of change?

    Seeing organisations as dynamic conversational networks exposes the flaw in the assumption that managers can be ‘in control’ of change. Formally of course, they are. That is, they can take whatever decisions they like, within the limits of their delegated authority. However, they are not in control – and can never be in control – of the ways in which people perceive, interpret and evaluate what managers say and do, or of how they act as a result of this. This “leadership paradox”, of being both ‘in control’ and ‘not in control’ at the same time, is another important challenge for managers to embrace.

  5. How do we improve conversations?

    I too agree with both the article and many of the comments, but the question that keeps popping into my head here is just how do we address these barriers and improve the conversations our leaders are having?

    People hold on to structure, popular models and simple tools, that allow them to keep control, because they are afraid of just what that messy reality might bring and whether they can deal with it. You may have heard of Jung's imposter syndrome?

    If we want to address fears we need to get into the real meat of what makes our influential leaders shy away from developing the open attitude. It is this attitude change that will allow them to see the organisation as a messy, yet amazing thing with huge potential exactly because of that messiness!

    However if we're talking about addressing real and personal fears how far do you think we should go in training and developing our leaders in their interpersonal skills for the benefit of greater performance?

    How far can we fairly encourage individuals to address personal fears and anxieties at work?

    Do we need to engage in exactly this activity, and push the boundaries to see change really work? If we do, is it right, and where are these boundaries?

    I'd love to know others thoughts on these questions.

    Ruth Williams

  6. Happy as I am
    At bottom all change is about getting people to do something differently from what they are doing now.

    Most of us are fairly comfortable in our jobs, know we can do them and feel content.

    Now they want to change that, how do I know I will be able to do my job then, what if I can’t, can I trust them? Should I help them or just sit tight and hope it fails as usual.

    Do they care what it means to me? If they cared they would have asked me about it in the first place!

    If they thought we cared and were any good at our jobs, they wouldn’t have brought that firm of Consultants in to help!

    Obviously they don’t think we are good enough! Obviously I won’t like this change. I’d better find out what everyone else thinks!

    So many changes founder on these rocks!

    Better to train the crew to navigate round the rocks before you find them in the way!

  7. Changing the conversations
    Many thanks to everyone who has commented on the article. It’s refreshing to see that there is so much support for the view that we need to change the way we think and talk about change! A couple of points in response …

    First, I agree wholeheartedly with the view that communication is at the core of change. At first sight, this might appear to be no different to the conventional view on how change happens. However, the focus there is on formal message passing – “getting the right facts to the right people at the right time.” What I’m talking about here, is the communication that takes place continuously in all organisations – through the dynamic network of conversations that take place locally.

    It’s through these everyday, mainly informal interactions that people make sense of formal messages and emerging events. And it’s through these that they decide how they are going to act. The challenge for those leading change is to try to impact upon this dynamic network of conversations in ways that shift the patterns of conversation and interaction in organisationally beneficial ways. As the patterns of conversation change, so do the actions that flow from them. And so does the organisation.

    Secondly, Yuvarajah queried my suggestion that relying on common sense is not always a sensible thing to do. My reason for saying this is best summed up by what Prof. Keith Grint refers to as the “banal paradox” of management. In essence, he suggests that much of what is taught in business schools and written about in business books is a banal paradox. It’s banal because it tells you what you already take for granted and know to be true. It’s a paradox because, despite being full of common sense, it doesn’t seem to work! I would say that much of what is taught and written about organisational change fits into this same category.

  8. What Change Entails
    I couldn’t agree more with Chris and the rest, especially on using Communication (not the Command and Control type). In addition, I would like to add that change leaders should embrace Coaching in an informal role.

    I have the experience of jumping straight into the change crusade, firing on all cylinders, until reality checked me in.
    Yes, the likes of power politics and personal agendas can be overwhelming for one person.

    I am not so sure about the part where common sense and conventional wisdom would not be good enough. Have we not enough conceptual tools to manage? What we need is not just eyes, but ears and a big heart to be

    For me, the biggest inertia is miscommunication. Be it the CEO who keeps his strategic plans in his head and expect his downline to have telepathic skills or the Manager who, for his own selfish reason, does not want to groom his successor or even the underperforming yet well-rewarded employee who knows the finer ropes of survival.

    Well, my common sense and conventional wisdom has told me about drawing a balance between the WILL and SKILL. And since the major challenge is obviously got more to do with the WILL, I have subscribe to the TEAM approach, based on the adage “the strength of a chain is in its weakest link”. Yes, the answer to connceting the dots lies in building “alliances”. Change can and should not become a lone battle, but rather “whats in it for us”.

    In conclusion, the messy side of initiating change is more to do with the soft sides as opposed to seeking conceptual tools. As I see it, the way to the “messy side”, as Chris rightly pointed out, lies in leadership influence. I just want to add one word to his take on it. Its Compassion.

    Just Sharing

  9. Some handy booklets
    I agree with much of what Chris and others have written. I have yet to see a change programme work as Prince suggests it will. Pritchett and partners, based in Texas, produce some great booklets about the not-strictly-logical parts of Change.

  10. Communication the Key
    A very well expressed series of comments on the change process.
    How often do managers fail to involve those concerned in the change process with the result that it does not achieve the desired results?
    Essentially, communication should be the first priority in any change process.

  11. We need new change management models
    I agree entirely with Chris’s observations. The problem with the current approach to change in many organisations is that it stems from IT implementation models and project management processes such as PRINCE. We need new models based on organisational psychology and emergent interventions such as Appreciative Inquiry. These reflect the reality of the “human resource” more accurately than the neat plans designed for machines.

    Anna Allan, Director

  12. Time to change change
    Well put Chris. Change is always going to be messy in places but still too many organisations look to Inject change without communicating the rationale, required results or anticipated impact to their people. Communication can help make the change visible and therefore real so my headline advice is to include communication professionals from the start.

  13. Messy change
    I must say how strongly I agree with Chris.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if change were planned based on a clear identification of the problem, a skillful analysis smoothly executed, followed by a steady implementation and evaluation?

    Unfortunately, the ‘liveware’ doesn’t always act logically or consistently – I know I don’t!

    Best wishes,

    Hazel Douglas

  14. utterly refreshing!
    Thank you so much for this! If leaders (sponsors of initiatives which require organisational change) gave their managers your literature, and Kevin Kelly’s ‘Out of Control’ to read ass an apraisal requirement, some change might actually be allowed to happen (and some of it beyond expectations, and not necessarily to plan).


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