by Eric Abrahamson (Harvard Business School Press, $26.95)
The literature agrees: Achieving deep-tissue, revolutionary organizational change requires strong jolts and disruptions to the existing structure. In the past this was taken to mean that change had to be big and destructive, so it took the form of layoffs, radical restructuring, and other slash-and-burn tactics. This "creative destruction" required organizations to destroy what was in place, then design new systems and implement them—all of which creates resistance. Author Eric Abrahamson warns that enough badly managed change initiatives will leave organizations not only the worse for wear but also filled with employees who create "their own inflexible organizational layer of human permafreeze."
A professor of management at Columbia Business School, Abrahamson, building on his earlier article of the same title, brings us his vision of achieving sweeping change through more humane means. Those familiar with appreciative inquiry will recognize his mantra: Recombine rather than destroy. He says recombination can occur across five arenas: people (redeploy talent, don't downsize), processes (salvage, don't reengineer), structure (recombine, don't reorganize), culture (revive, don't reinvent, core values) and social networks (leverage, don't automate). In other words, quit throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Buy it a new playpen if you want, and arrange for it to go to a different play group from time to time if you must, but for Pete's sake, quit moving its cheese!
A talented writer, Abrahamson's words are a soothing balm for those caught in the crossfire of initiative overload, overenthusiastic managers with solutions in search of problems, and organizations that can't get anything done because everyone is trying to figure out what to do. He is especially eloquent on the slippery issue of blaming problems on culture: " ... even though the executive could not define what constituted a culture, what cultures did, and what distinguished his firm's culture from that of other firms, he was certain that the culture had to change."
I recommend the book with one reservation: Aren't there times when change should be painful? Sometimes bad employees do need to go; bad processes do need to be replaced; a shakeup does need to occur. Abrahamson alludes to this but pays it little real attention. I realize he doesn't want to undercut his message but some stronger wording here would make the book more realistic. —J.B.