Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Committing to Change: How Change Agents Become Effective

Management practice has its fair share of cynics, and one story that many cynics will tell is that there are three sources of inefficiency in organizations. The first is that they can’t change into better practices, the second is that they pay for consultants who can’t help them change into better practices, and the third is that they pay for business schools to teach their managers, who end up not being able to change them into better practices. As a faculty member of a school that benefits a lot from the third source, I can at least say I agree with the cynics on the first two. But then, what can be done?


New research by Melissa Valentine in Administrative Science Quarterly has looked closely at consultants and organizational change, and offers some very helpful insights. She studied efforts to improve a cancer treatment center, so the changes were not just simple matters of reducing cost but had significant health outcomes. What did she find? First, it is completely true that significant consultant effort can be invested with no real change as a result. Money wasted, in other words, but perhaps worth trying because it is likely that nothing would have happened without the consultants either.

But consulting changing nothing was just one result – there were also some consultant efforts that did produce better practices. Importantly, the difference in how the consultants and the cancer center interacted in the unsuccessful  and successful cases was so systematic that this research gives clear guidance on what needs to be done to improve organizations. The difference can be summed up in one word: commitment.  And I will write the rest of the blog without any reference to interpersonal relationships, although I admit to being tempted.

Consultants hear from organizational members what works well and what does not, and they collect ideas on how improvements can be done and who would be in favor of them and under what conditions. This is done every time and has nothing to do with success or failure.  The success came from taking one more step. Whenever possible improvements were suggested and had some level of support across the organization, the managers who would be responsible for making changes were asked to renegotiate their obligations to each other and to implement the necessary changes. The renegotiation is needed because changes in complex organizations typically cross boundaries of managers and are most effectively handled by direct negotiation, not by referring up to the shared manager. Immediate implementation is needed because it is easy to give nice-sounding promises without accepting the cost of actually following through.  In other words, the success came from making managers decide what to commit to and then making them commit.

This was not just done as a final set of activities after delivering a report. It was a continuous effort, step by step, in which managers made adjustments and re-adjustments, set time tables and expected commitments, set new goals and measures, and followed up. The process also went far beyond managers, because hospitals also have another very powerful group: the doctors. Efforts to integrate their concerns were made in both the successful and unsuccessful project, but again, the successful project pushed all the way to commitment. In the successful case, the key decision makers ended up feeling obliged to fulfill promises they had made to others in the organizations – not to the consultants – and as a result, the organization changed.

The implication is clear. Consulting is often seen as an effective way of making changes because changes require a time investment, and organizations typically don’t have the resources to do their regular work and make time investments all at once. But increasing the capacity to propose change does not relieve the organization of the responsibility to negotiate, decide, and commit. Without those added activities, it is paying for nothing.


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