Toward the Eye of the Storm


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


In the early 1990s, my colleagues and I spent a lot of time at one of the seven Baby Bells, the regional phone companies that had been spun off from AT&T.  All of the Bells, including Ma Bell, had become aware that they were the epitome of a stable organization and, as a result, they were hugely unprepared for competition.  Our task, which we accomplished, was to do an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various parts of the company and make specific recommendations for improvement

The Bells were and are very large companies with enormous revenues, a huge number of customers – and a 100-year-old culture that grew out of a monopoly.  It would be hard to imagine an organization that could be less prepared for the Darwinism of borderless competition than the Bell companies.

Change, major core change was clearly called for.  The CEO proposed the simultaneous restructuring of the company from hundreds of customer centers to less than twenty; the re-engineering of many of their important processes; and the instillation of a major quality improvement program.

The proposed changes were going to cause an enormous disruption in people’s lives.  It was estimated that over 80 percent of employees would have to move just because of the consolidation of the customer centers.

The disruption at work would be as great.  The complexity of the proposed re-engineering and quality improvement processes was clear to see because maps of the existing processes and the probable changes were posted in diagrams that encircled large rooms and spilled out into the long corridors.

The corporation was split between those who claimed it was kinder to rip the bandage off fast! and those who insisted that it was wiser to avoid unnecessary disruptions to employees and their families and it was better to avoid catastrophic mistakes at work.  If that more cautious and prudent course were to be followed it meant it was necessary to take the time to learn what worked and what didn’t and therefore, change would be implemented gradually.

The CEO decided to take the fast path and Rip! the bandage off! All kinds of changes were instituted immediately.  The result was chaos.  We never did get a chance to implement our recommendations.  When we returned to that Bell’s headquarters about two years later, all but one of the officers that we had known had been replaced by new people.

Major change programs are usually introduced with great fanfare. While there’s often some lip service to the difficulties of the journey, most of the communication is really a call for “Troops! Into the future!” It’s very rare for executives to acknowledge that major change is hard to achieve and always takes an uneven and uncertain path because there are always significant and unexpected outcomes that no one can predict.  It’s very unusual for executives to be upfront and say that massive, basic change efforts are rarely successful in their entirety and actually, many fail to achieve any significant progress.

The normal cheer-leading by management encourages people to get on the band wagon – but it also leaves people unprepared for the lack of significant success of a change effort or for the endless succession of new change efforts which usually and swiftly follow the ones that failed to make a difference. When a series of change efforts fail, the change process itself, has no credibility and few champions.  That’s future ground for further failure.

Unless there’s a brutal crisis, core change is very difficult to accomplish. A major transformation in how an organization operates or in what its people believe normally takes years.

While change can occur faster if there’s an obvious real crisis, the evolution of core change in people and organizations usually takes between three and five years. That, and the fact that basic change normally generates resistance or “push-back,” is why achieving transformational change normally requires a multi-year commitment to follow-through. It is very common for change programs to make their biggest investment in the kick-off of the program and the initial phases of training.  After that, the level of energy and commitment by the leadership usually dissipates.  That contributes to the programs’ failure.

Another reason for the lack of success of many efforts to create basic change in stable organizations, to make them performance-driven, for example, is because change efforts usually start by first trying to change the organization’s culture.  While that idea sounds perfectly plausible, it is also wrong.  An organization’s “culture” is the sum of its expectations, attitudes, values and normal behaviors.  Those are peripheral to the core business and, as such, have no clout.  Becoming “team-based”, for example, is a much weaker goal than “Earn a dollar a share.”   An effective change process must address what really matters; the change process has to focus its efforts on improving the performance of the business.

Looking back, it seems very clear now that the proposition of bold major, massive change was accepted by executives in the 1980s and early 90s; because the executives knew they were floundering in the face of the new borderless reality. Their personal uncertainty seemed to justify the goal of organizational transformation to something entirely different from what the organization was actually like.  The appearance of specific recipes for core change like those of Re-engineering and Quality provided relief for executives from their own anxiety and, for that reason; they were embraced by corporate leaders.

Mega-change sounded heroic and modern, in contrast to incremental change, which was chicken and wishy-washy.   So, core transformation became chic.  But few leaders thought much about the effect of imposing more core changes on their people, most of who were already traumatized by the end of job security.  With a goal of massive transformation, most change efforts were not designed to achieve stages of success which would have reinforced the process and raised people’s hopes, commitment and engagement.  In fact, controlled, incremental change in which stages of success were an integral part of the design, would have been far more effective, most of the time.

In the case of the Baby Bell which started this blog, for example, it would probably have had a successful experience rather than the chaos and failure that resulted from trying to do everything at once, if the company had developed a sequence of change and then carefully experimented with restructuring its customer centers, and re-engineering for aspects of quality, in one region of its territory before requiring restructuring throughout its region.



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