Saturday, February 19, 2005

Lasting Change with Slow Churn

"I want a culture change by Monday" now has competition--the slow movement. Slow food, slow cities, and slow living have caught the imaginations of millions worldwide. The creative destruction of downsizings and top down change management have not paid off in greater productivity. People are stressed out from too much change too fast. Despite the zeal and impassioned pleas of well meaning leaders, continual disruption has led to organizational paralysis and demotivated workforces. Enough already! Slow change is now embracing our imaginations as an idea whose time has finally come.

Leading the way in the slower life are the Japanese, reformed workaholics. After experiencing a high rate of "death from overwork" (karoshi) in the latter part of the 20th century, the Japanese, according to a recent OECD study, have significantly reduced hours worked per capita among people of working age without sacrificing productivity. In Canada and the United States, the hours are climbing. We haven't reached the heights of the Japanese during their darkest hours of overwork but the alarm bells are ringing.

"Repetitive change syndrome" as coined by Eric Abrahamsom at Columbia Business School in New York, is diverting employees attention from focussing on customers to "stick-handling" demands from the top for business process improvements. The "changeaholic" workplace is proving to be devastating to morale and employee health. As for all manner of living things, too much change may be pushing us to the edge of our biological tolerance.

The better approach is more organic and evolutionary--small scale change that leads to large scale adaption. Ontherwards, let the little experiments happen. See what works and then scale up. For example, principal Wayne Copp at Toronto's Baycrest School noticed students from low income families were falling behind in their reading ability particularly over the summer holidays. He solved the problem by setting up a summer literacy camp. His Board of Education took notice of the successful results and eventually rolled the idea across the city.

Wayne's intuitive sense of acting on an issue embodies an emerging awareness among great "change leaders". Don't try to change the world all at once. Find a solution to an immediate problem. Let the change sink in. Strike a balance between change and stability. Pace change. Counterbalance it with periods of rest to allow people to adapt systems and structures to the current new way.

Abrahamson adds: Go to your corporate "basement" and check out what you've got that can be recombined and redeployed to meet new environmental needs. Rather than "creating, inventing or purchasing something new", shift talented people into parts of the organization where their expertise is better suited to the new strategy. Instead of slashing and burning, "tinker, fiddle, jury-rig, bootstrap, cobble together and patch your way to effective change". "Change without pain".

Emerging research on change in organizations indicates that small changes reap massive performance increases. It mimics evolution in life itself. We are physiologically resilient. We are cautious in testing new territory. But after some experimentation and with proof of solid results, we move forward with gusto.

The slow movement is our natural response to being overwhelmed by waves of change without rest in-between. We can live better in an organization and produce outstanding results if we deal with the rush to change by slowing down. But at times slowing down may not always be the answer as the slow philosophy embraces doing everything at the right speed. It is a nuanced challenge for leaders.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Permitting the Small Birds to Sing

"Too little time lunching in the staff cafeteria" is one pundit's take on a key reason for Carly Fiorina's demise. He may be onto something. Since her ouster by the HP board on February 9, the prevailing opinions by the media, academics and management gurus alike have ranged from "poor strategy execution" to not delegating (having a COO) to failure to change the moribund or resistant culture of the founders, David and Bill. Likely right on all counts. But, it is the details that matter here. Carly failed to win the hearts and minds of the little people--that is, her employees below the senior executives. If she had hung out in the cafeteria, she might have even changed her strategy.

Perhaps Carly believed she had to be the keeper of the strategy, as the the board expected her to be bold and create enormous shareholder value in record time. Thus, her theatrical communications were reflective of that belief. She had to look confident even if it was ill-conceived (the merger with Compaq).

What the little people want is to be acknowledged (for the culture they hold dear) and to have hope for the future IF they make a shift in their way of doing business. They also like to be consulted and have the opportunity to contribute their wisdom. Carly tampered with the soul of the organization--it's a dangerous approach for a leader when attempting change.

Better that the "eagle permit the small birds to sing, and care not wherefore they sang", so aptly described by Winston Churchill when negotiating peace at the end of WW II. The late Arthur Miller characterized the dilemma as our "tragic right". We fear being displaced, being torn away from our image of what and who we are in the world. The "tragic right", according to Miller "is a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and and realize itself". It is possible that Carly failed to imbue employees with their potential to make a difference. Her messaging instead was that they needed to change.

In the end, Carly had few followers--surely the litmus test of a leader. No doubt her intentions were noble. But her method did not "permit the small birds to sing".

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

HP's Culture Overthrows Carly

At every level of our lives, our values and beliefs define who we are and how we act. As we are social beings shaped by geography and the traditions into which we are born and to which we are drawn, it is no surprise that Carly Fiorina lost her battle to remake HP. She fought hard to change the HP Way with a mega merger and bold restructurings. The more kind and compassionate culture of founders Bill and David smarted at the assaults. The Compaq values simply didn't cut it. The brash outsider who outwitted Walter Hewlett over the HP-Compaq merger and who shortly thereafter stopped talking about the HP culture finally succumbed to the DNA of HP.

Carly started out in a difficult place. CEOs who are outsiders do not fare nearly as well as insiders, contrary to common belief (see Charan's article in HBR February 2005). They don't know the culture. They are often brought in to shake things up. Trouble is they still have to deal with human beings who not only have a great deal of expertise, they have feelings and are proud. Any new CEO has to tread carefully to connect with the workforce and the history of the organization. Too much change cannot easily be absorbed when people are trying to get the product out the door. Radical change that flies in the face of tradition, especially one that has served a company well, is a dangerous path to pursue.

David Packard, an iron-willed yet gentle leader and Bill Hewlett a friendly dreamer together forged a workplace where people felt cared for and encouraged to rise to great heights of accomplishment. In today's insecure world, it is just that kind of workplace that thrives. Collins and Porras made the point quite clearly in "Built to Last". "Core values are an organization's essential and enduring tenets, not to be compromised for financial gain or short-term expediency". They found that builders of visionary companies focus on creating "a ticking clock" rather than hitting a market just right".

The HP clock lives on. Charisma is highly over-rated.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Work-Life Conflicts Getting Worse

It's hard for leader-managers to model great leadership and to inspire employees when they themselves are tuckered out. I've interviewed scores of overloaded and stressed out managers in the last few years who have legitimate complaints about the workplace. They work longer hours, regularly taking work home. Downsizing has squeezed their numbers causing them to have their heads buried in tasks at the expense of overseeing, coaching and mentoring. Child care and elder care just add to the stress. The research bears out their experiences. Work-life balance is more talk than action among large Canadian organizations.

Professors Linda Duxbury and Chris Higgins from Carleton and Western Universities respectively have raised many red flags with their research. Managers, in particular, are on treadmills, not of the healthy exercise kind. The greatest surprise is that men, managers and professionals and employees in the not-for-profit sector have the heaviest work demands. Furthermore managers and professionals regardless of gender in all regions across the country work are less likely to be paid for their considerable overtime hours. See Duxbury and Higgins report at

This is a complex issue that requires leadership from the very top and an awakening by managers to get better control of this runaway problem. Smart strategy and strong organizational cultures are not easily created and sustained when workload drives the agenda.