Yang: Almost Final Words On Half-Truths

Los Alamos

As much as I love studying organizations, there are times I just want to throw my hands up and say, “Why bother?” Especially when everything about organizational life seems complicated, without easy answers, or often, with no answers. We like nothing better than a linear, neat, straight road to lead us through the day. So it is with issues like “change!’ 

On the one hand, we extol those who embrace change and disdain those who “resist” change; on the other hand, we don’t ever know exactly how to go about engaging change effectively. One major reason why changes are messy in organizations is because the goals of management and those of the “other employees” are often orthogonal or even opposed. What management may see as an improvement, “other employees” (the ones who do the work?) often see as a dis-improvement.

In Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense, Pfeffer and Sutton mention the Oracle (software) system. Stanford University, where the authors are professors, wanted to “improve” their software system using Oracle’s “enterprise resource planning” (ERP). The project cost twice as much in time and money as projected – while not terribly effective — and as a result the university administration actually “apologized to the staff for putting them through it!” LANL also uses Oracle. This is a typical kind of decision where executives love the “concept” of ERP without really grasping the costs for the implementation and the time and effort it costs the staff who are forced to use the system. This is all the more glaring when these top-level managers’ own work isn’t likely to be profoundly impacted by the proposed change.  

Other typical organizational changes that the authors warn about include:  mergers and acquisitions; switching to “better” HR practices; quality improvement efforts (such as the Six Sigma); business process reengineering; layoffs; launching a new product; and starting a new organization.  Management really needs to have a deep understanding of how each of these types of change would impact the organization.  Are the changes really worth the upheavals that they are guaranteed to bring to the organization?  Is the management willing to be honest and open to employees’ feedback, and have a genuine dialog?  When planning a major change, perhaps it is wiser to start with experiment, such as making the planned change in a smaller unit.  

Combing through research from economics, psychology, sociology, and business/management, Pfeffer and Sutton offer the following key questions for decisions on changes:  

  • Is the practice better than what you are doing Is it best to make only symbolic changes instead of core changes?
  • Is doing the change good for you, but bad for the company?
  • Do you have enough power to make the change happen?
  • Are people already overwhelmed by too many changes?
  • Will people be able to learn and update as the change unfolds?
  • Will you be able to pull the plug?”

Good questions.  But an important platform for assessing and answering these questions is honesty and authenticity on management’s part.  For instance, the answer to question 4:  The kind of managers who are into making themselves look good (of which there are plenty and they are likely to be the last people to admit it) cannot possibly answer that question wisely, which can begin the downward spiral.

These issues ultimately beg inquiry into the quality of managers and how much control they should and do wield.  Since I have touched on managers/leaders roles previously, I will try not to repeat myself, but will highlight a few points that intrigue me.  

Managers-leaders do make differences, big and small…except when they don’t. In general and on average, managers cause moderate impact at best; however, the lower the level where managers reside, the higher the likelihood that their actions are impactful. One of the major reasons for limited impact is the constraints posed by both internal and external environments. This is especially true for large organizations.  Remember, it’s really about the system. As much as managers would like to believe that they are in control, reality says otherwise. In addition, at least in most of the western developed countries, there is a natural built-in tension between accepting hierarchy and authority and keeping the power of control at the upper level in check.

Now, why would the managers at the lower levels have more impact? There are more managers at this level; the probability of diverse backgrounds is therefore higher, and we are likely to witness a wider range of management styles that may be more in touch with the staff’s needs. Upwardly-mobile managers tend to have more homogeneous backgrounds, education, track records, management styles and ways of thinking, etc.  The paradox here is that the higher the management level, the more complex the problems and situations the manager faces, yet the more homogeneous the approaches and styles one has learned along the managerial ladder, which constrains the imagination required at the higher management levels.  What most managers/leaders need to bear in mind is that the majority of their responsibility is about projecting confidence while exercising humility in the face of flaws in the system, and retaining the (internal) doubts necessary for accepting improvement.

One final point about managers/leaders is this: While the good ones’ impact is rather moderate, the bad ones inflict enormous damage, to organizations and the people working in them. “Study after study demonstrates that bad leaders [managers as well, my words] destroy the health, happiness, loyalty, and productivity of their subordinates.”

The authors offer nine points for taking evidence into actions:

  1. “Treat your organization as an unfinished prototype.” Except don’t overwhelm people with changes.
  2. “No brag, just facts.” I like this one a lot.
  3. “Master the obvious and mundane.” Such as, avoid mergers and acquisitions!
  4. “See yourself and your organization as outsiders do.” Talking to customers is a good way to start.
  5. “Power, prestige, and performance make you stubborn, stupid, and resistant to valid evidence.” This would require a high level of self-awareness, which tends to diminish as one moves up.
  6. “Evidence-based management is not just for senior executives.” True, except lower level managers are by and large extremely constrained by resources and time.
  7. “Like everything else, you still need to sell it.” Stay on message, and the fewer the messages the more effective they can be.
  8. “If all else fails, slow the spread of bad practices.” This is a tough one; how many would recognize that they are in a bad situation?
  9. “The best diagnostic question: What happens when people fail?” I could write another thesis on this one. Love it!

There is never going to be a shortage of half-truths, and so I will not have true final words on them. For now, though, I rest my case.  

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.


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