To paraphrase a quote often attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Nothing is as constant as change.”
Throughout my more than 50 years in corporate America, change has been our most pervasive activity. I’ll always remember a quote, attributed to a Romangeneral, that hung on the wall of the Wells Fargo training and development department in the 1970s:
“No sooner do we settle on one form of organization or one set of processes than someone decides we need to change it.”
The corollary would be that ordering unnecessary change is one way to avoid ever being evaluated.
Lately, there seems to be an increase in calls for change through reorganization, realignment or transformation. The stimulus for this is the obvious need to keep up with competition. No one can argue against that.
Still, there is considerable difference among those three activities in terms of thought process, activities and results.
The following are examples of the divergence.
Reorganization is the most common of the three processes. It can be a mandate or a project as simple as rearranging the organizational chart. It seems that whenever new executives come into an organization, they want to reorganize it.
At times, this is little more than a game of musical chairs. The jobs and responsibilities of the organization are rewritten with no substantive change in management style. We simply replace the existing people, processes, forms, timing or responsibilities with new ones. Unfortunately, this often has little or no long-term effect on performance. It’s simply a disruption.
The second form of change is realignment. This is much more complicated because it calls for the organization to shift its focus from one modus operandi to another. I’ve seen this much more frequently in the past five years than in the previous 50.
A common realignment is, for instance, to shift from an emphasis on operating efficiency to one of customer service. Retailers in particular seem to have caught onto this type of change, as they realize the power has shifted from the producer to the consumer.
The third change form, transformation, is much more profound than either of the other two. In January 2015, professional services firm EY and the University of Oxford reported their collaboration on a study of senior executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It revealed how leading-edge thinkers are looking at their enterprises from the standpoint of leveraging purpose to spur innovation and sustain growth.
They pointed out the following:
- There is an evolving view of the role of the corporation increasingly emphasizes the corporation as a partner for societal well-being.
- There is an expansion of the traditional mission statement focus on products, and attributes such as trustworthiness, to an articulation on their reason for being.
- Innovative leaders have taken up a language of purpose to engage employees and customers in terms of shared values for the betterment of all.
- Taking a “purpose drives profits” view, the leaders seek to direct existing and new product and service lines in ways that achieve this broader purpose.
- They are also initiating purpose-led transformations recognizing the importance of integrated, humane purpose as the core decision-making mandate for driving functions like strategy, business models and talent management.
Conversely, they report a gap between this purpose language and the policies and practices of their organizations. While this thinking and exposition is very encouraging, it isn’t a new idea.
More than a dozen years ago, Peter Koestenbaum, philosopher, professor and executive coach, reminded us:
“Unless the distant goals of meaning, greatness and destiny are addressed, we cannot make an intelligent decision about what to do tomorrow morning — much less set strategy for a company.”
To me, transformational thinking is an open door for the human resources orhuman capital discipline. It’s what we’ve been preaching for decades. Now, the horse has come to the water and is finally ready to drink.