When you first pick it up, you might think To Change or Not to Change is lightweight. Soft-backed and short (just over 100 pages), it can be read in a day. What’s more, as the back-cover blurb and the foreword make clear, it’s not a textbook. Keen to close the gap between ‘organizational science’ and the realities of organizational life, the authors, Vlerick Business School professor Ralf Wetzel and consultant and trainer Holger Regber, express their ideas in storytelling, following a fictitious company, troubled manufacturer the KSV, as it experiences the trials of change. But don’t be fooled. This is not a simple book.
The story of the KSV is told as a ‘play within a play’. Transcripts of meetings with its beleaguered management team are sent to the book’s narrator, Harry Newman, by his colleague, Joe Glaser. Both men are academics working on a project on the management of change, and both, much like James Grader, the managing director brought in by holding company EDOS to turn the KSV round, are under pressure for results. Slowly but surely, the transcripts (very nicely observed pieces of dialogue) come to be a mirror in which Harry, the senior academic, sees not only the workings of the KSV but also the workings of his own organization – and, crucially, the woeful limitations of his own theories.
What does he conclude? Essentially, that, to paraphrase Hamlet, there are more things in ‘heaven and earth’ than are ‘dreamt of’ in the ‘philosophies’ of academics and writers and experts and consultants.
One of the key messages of To Change or Not to Change is that step-by-step guides and standardized solutions are no match for the complexities and dynamics of organizations — and that success often happens more by accident than design. (When the KSV finally starts to make progress, it’s the result of a chain reaction rather than a management ‘master plan’.)
The book mocks the rhetoric of managers. Grader, in a move vaguely reminiscent of The Office, proudly tells his wife he’s introduced an ‘open door’ policy — but keeps his eyes and ears closed. (He doesn’t understand the KSV and its history and culture, and, as the EDOS ‘alchemist’, hasn’t got the time to.)
Some of the sharpest satire, though, is reserved for managers’ advisers. The KSV’s encounter with Best Practice Consulting (BPC) is one of the most memorable parts of the book. Brought in without the agreement of the whole of the management team, BPC’s four consultants arrive with slideshows and a toolkit — and the emotional intelligence of the Daleks. Within three days, they’ve turfed the exhausted head of production Derek Huber out of his office, sending him to work from a ‘makeshift desk in the pantry’, and managed to alienate their only potential ally, operations manager, Reg Thornton.
A few Power Workshops later, they’re out on the ears, their plans sabotaged by passive aggression from the KSV management team. Even if they had treated theKSV’s staff with the respect they deserved, it’s clear they would have failed — in the long term, at least. They commit the cardinal sin of consultancy: retro-fitting a company’s problems on to prepared solutions. Just like Grader, they’re blind to the bigger picture.
This may all sound like a bleak view of management life –organizations are necessarily messy, success happens as much by luck as judgment, ergo you might as well do nothing – but To Change or Not to Change is not at all a depressing or negative book. The authors make clear you can shorten the odds of success. (Harry supplies ‘hints’ at the end of each chapter, including some for working with consultants.) More importantly, perhaps, the book points to the power of ‘lateral’ leadership — demonstrating that a ‘system’ that has the ability to reject interventions also has the ability to self-organize and solve problems on its own.
To Change or Not to Change has more in common with Shakespeare’s comedies than his tragedies: it has a happy (if somewhat ironic) ending.
To Change or Not to Change? The Surprising Reality of Change in Organizations, Ralf Wetzel & Holger Regber is published by Lannoo Campus, 2013, ISBN 978 94 014 08905