"It is impossible for ideas to
compete in the marketplace if no forum for
their presentation is provided or available."
Thomas Mann, 1896
The Business Forum
A Tale of Three Villages
Approaches to Implementing
By David G.
The chiefs of three villages each set out to build a
bridge across a wide chasm. If they could build this bridge, the trade that
came would enrich the lives of villagers for generations to come. The first
chief told his workers, "Go forth and work. Do whatever is necessary to
build that bridge." The villagers established a frenzied pace, for this
chief abused those workers who did not follow his commands. The first chief
boasted to the other two leaders about the speed of his construction.
Unfortunately, because no one coordinated these worker's efforts, the bridge
was a haphazard collection of nails and boards. It soon collapsed.
The second chief was watching this mess and decided to
learn from the first chief's mistakes. She organized her workers into teams,
and gave them a plan to build a bridge. At first, these workers had success,
and built the bridge straight as an arrow far over the chasm. She boasted to
the two other chiefs about the accomplishments of her workers. Unfortunately,
the bridge only went so far, for the chief did not know how to build
structural supports. Her workers became discouraged and abandoned their
The third chief was watching their efforts and decided
to learn from the other chiefs' mistakes. He sent his workers to the other
villages to learn what they had done, and what they hadn't done. His workers
then developed a plan. In their first step, they did not build the bridge at
all, but focused on creating the support columns they would need. When they
completed this task, they rapidly finished the bridge.
Many organizations are like the first village in
implementing organizational change. They start with vague directives with
little clarity on what to do. Their successes are sporadic and likely to fail.
Other organizations are like the second village, and become victims of their
own success. Their initial improvement teams may be so successful they rapidly
create more teams, without the qualitative organization-wide changes necessary
to sustain a permanent effort. Some of these changes are obvious, in that
companies must facilitate, recognize and encourage these teams. However, other
qualitative changes (described below) also may be necessary. If these changes
are not made, the organizational change movement risks running into the same
troubles that enfeebled the quality circles of the 1970's and 80's. (See
"Quality Circles after the Fad" by Edward Lawler III in the Harvard
Business Review, January-February 1985, and several recent articles in the
Wall Street Journal).
The first two villages used "incremental"
approaches to organizational change: They deal with technical problems the
organization faces one at a time, without reviewing or changing any underlying
"systems" issues, such as performance appraisal, profit sharing vs
individual compensation, and organizational structure. Incremental approaches
work best when senior management is unwilling to deal with these systems
issues, when lower-level employees wish to experiment with organizational
change without senior management support, or when many in management are
ambivalent towards organizational change. Organizations can use approaches in
"stealth" mode, where several improvement teams are quietly working
without senior management's acknowledgement. These approaches are good for
picking "low-lying fruit", (solving easy problems.) Incremental
approaches can easily collapse when organizational change
"champions" leave the organization.
Option one is one of the most frequently used models in
implementing organizational change, and perhaps the most wasteful of time and
effort. Using this approach, every one in the company or a designated unit
receives massive training/motivational training (40-100 hours) in
organizational change, problem solving and meeting management. After this
training, employees in many are on their own.
In addition, because management does not tie training to
implementation, natural work groups (people directly reporting to the same
person), and cross-functional teams end up with only some of their members
trained. Many people wait months before they used the training they were
The net result of this option is the loss of employee
time due to too much training being given, employees feeling confused about
the company's direction, and frustration at not using the training they
received. Whatever success these teams are limited by the structural barriers
the company has, that is compensation, organizational structure, performance
Option two emphasizes 1) defining the company's goals
and objectives, 2) selecting improvement projects tied to those goals, 3)
training only the members of the improvement team with just enough training,
just before they use it, and 4) providing on-going support of each team's
The result of using option two is a more sharply defined
effort than in option 1, with a much greater chance that the improvement
team's efforts will directly relate to the company's goals, and a greater
sense of accomplishment among team members.
As with option one, these teams' successes will be
limited by the structural barriers the company has, i.e., compensation,
organizational structure, performance appraisal, etc.
The Structural Approach
The structural approach to implementing organizational
change deals initially and directly with the systems barriers described above.
Other names for this approach include organizational design and the
"socio-technical" approach. Using this approach, senior management
forms a steering committee, who then designate a design team made of a
diagonal slice of the company. This design team then assesses the company's
culture, systems and environment, and develops recommendations for the
steering committee. Such recommendations can include self-directed work teams,
profit-based pay, pay for knowledge, and reorganizing the company away from
the "functional stovepipes" of manufacturing, engineering, sales and
service, towards a more product, customer or geographically based orientation.
The chief advantages to this approach are:
1) dealing with major issues up-front, rather than
2) changing aspects of the company that will have a
substantial effect on productivity.
3) demonstrating that management is serious about
Disadvantages include the need to be open and honest
with employees from the beginning (if that is a disadvantage), and dealing
head-on with issues that many in management may have trouble changing: their
own management style, their own pay, and their own power.
is a Fellow of The Business Forum Institute and the Managing Partner of Organized Change Consultancy,
and the developer of the Organized Change Survey System, writes with more than
twenty years of experience with a wide variety of organizations including
manufacturing, electronics, NGO, petrochemical, biotechnology,
government, banking, venture capital and financial service sectors. He works internationally with clients in North
America, South America, Europe and the Middle East. David is
of more than twenty five practical articles on strategic planning and
organizational change, Dr. Chaudron has assisted organizations in planning
their strategies, changing their organizations, surveying their employees,
building their teams, and improving the leadership styles of their executives.
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