Something has to change!

Clarification of the Remit:
We meet in his office and he tells us that there have already been repeated workshops and seminars about leadership in recent years. Lately, four modules of management tools were handed out to each manager, management guidelines were created and annual appraisals introduced.  However, this has not resulted in any changes. Although the managers are distributed throughout the organisation, and they declare that they are using the guidelines, both, the employees and the Union are very dissatisfied with the leadership culture.

 We ask the CEO to clarify what exactly he means by ‘Change’, as it is unclear to us why change is required. What changes would he like to see and what can remain as it is? Although we ask him, he is unable to clarify his concerns. He describes a growing sense of unease, even fear. He feels the staff all ‘play dead’. But to remain competitive, the organisation would have to become leaner, more agile, more decisive. Yet here he is, stuck in a mire. His people all agree that something must change urgently, but then, nothing happens. They cannot progress, they are stuck in inertia and react neither to customers, markets, poor budgets, nor to instructions and requests. The existence of the organisation is endangered.

Although we still lack some understanding about his concerns, we suggest he initially suspends the executive development programme and examines why all efforts to date have been of no avail instead. Initially we would like to analyse how the organisation can remain unresponsive in a rapidly changing world, putting his desire for change aside for the moment.  

Consultation Process:
Together with the team we decide to talk to a large variety of people within the organisation, so that we can gain an understanding of what he means by ‘play dead’, and whether, in any case, this is a sensible description for the way employees and managers experience their daily work. What do they think functions well, where do they fail, and how do they perceive the organisation?

We hold conversations with four of our advisory team to obtain the broadest possible range of perspectives. Two members of the team are not acquainted with the CEO and his concern. In this manner we seek to avoid simply taking on the CEO’s perspective. We utilise structured interviews with personnel from all departments and at all hierarchy levels, but also permit them to just talk. As we expected, each respondent has an individual point of view, and afterwards we consultants  sit down together for a long time and discover surprising agreement.  

The first conspicuous detail is that almost every respondent requested our word of honour not to reveal what he/she had said. (Always the same sentence: Don’t tell anyone that you got this from me!) At the same time, and without exception, they feared punishment, even though they all confirmed that they are not usually dismissed or demoted.

Bit by bit we find action-guiding, implicit patterns:

  • Watch and see who is at fault, but make sure you are not blamed.
  • Nobody cares, but the family take over the care.
  • In fact, everything is quite simple, but the world is always presented as being so complicated.
  • One ought to be able to simply work, but one can’t do that anymore, because there is always something wrong
  • Once upon a time the gold would fly through the window, now there are only meagre cents.
  • Everyone is an individual fighter, but actually we are a large family.
  • The world will save us, but the world is killing us.

Obviously, people in the organisation are caught up in paradoxes that make it completely impossible to move at all. “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”.

We write a detailed report and illustrate the patterns in large, and partly provocative drawings, so that it is not revealed who and how different people expressed themselves. In a personal meeting, we lay these diagrams in front of the CEO and the managers of the different departments. Initially, there is a stony silence, then the CEO, apparently relieved, says, “Yes, this is exactly how things are here”.  

He shows courage by openly displaying the pictures within the organisation. We would like to know if the diagrams only represent our extreme viewpoint or whether the staff share these sentiments. Over six-hundred employees take part by sticking a green spot around the pictures they agree with, and a red spot, where they do not agree. After a week we discover that almost exclusively green spots have been utilised.  

The CEO and his management team move their work location for a week to the room where the posters are displayed, so they can absorb all the comments that are received from their employees. Everyone is made welcome here, regardless of which department they come from, be it production, administration or management. Agreements and disagreements, emotions and thoughts, ideas and suggestions are all collected. We offer support by formulating questions, visualising answers and moderating during debates.  

Consultation Result:
There was no more ‘playing dead’ after the presentation. The whole organisation was vitalised for an entire week and so many employees arrived with ideas that it was barely possible to examine them all and select the best ones. For some experienced employees this was difficult to cope with; they complained of overload and chaos and complained loudly about interruptions in their work. However, the CEO was highly satisfied as he could suddenly bring movement into the processes. At last he had the feeling that he could accomplish something after all.

Theoretical Classification:
We don’t know from whom, from where, since when and why the traditional rules were introduced into the organisation. After all, the business has been in family ownership for many generations and has Prussian roots. In the history of the family it is clear who has had the say and who not. They cared for the sick and the old, readily took on responsibility for the welfare of the staff, but in return they expected them to obey and conform.   

Their culture is still marked by this. “Here we do it like this.” No one asks why. The status quo is normal, natural and dictated by God. There are hardly any fluctuations in staff. Loyalty and faithfulness are taken for granted, they are simply a given.  The family vehemently defend these values, but nevertheless, due to the demands of the time, they employed a CEO from outside, whose job it is to modernise the organisation.  

The new CEO demands a readiness to take risk. Good performance, flexibility, agility, modernisation, globalisation and tolerance of mistakes are also required. He would like to bring in new blood. But staff are unsure as to whether he will be here today and gone tomorrow, whether he is even a permanent part of the organisation and, whether his demands will still be valid in future, or how long he will remain employed by the company.

Thus, the affected people arrive at a paradox situation which paralyses the entire organisation. This cognitive dissonance produces tension and endangers a stable and positive self-image. The job becomes a high wire walk, where to the left and the right the abyss threatens.  Only by openly giving voice to these contradictions and allowing discussion can the system be brought into movement. The drive to do the ‘right thing’ is nevertheless present in the daily working day.


Lead Process -Treatment of the Past
The process of organising (=organisation) in the lead process ‘Treatment of the Past’ necessitates a judgement about the question, ‘Should a decision made in the past be adhered to, or should it be adapted as you acquire more knowledge.’

In this lead process an organisation is struggling with the past in the face of new alternatives (patterns, habits, decision assumptions, structures). It is trying to decide whether to reject the old or the new, and, at the same time, whether the old or the new can now be defined as valid. In this context, learning is understood not to be something additional, as it would then ‘only’ be a broadening of competences, or a new development. In this respect, in addition to one’s learning of the new procedures one must add the unlearning of the (once good) old procedures. This is one of the reasons why learning things anew is so difficult. No organisation will lightly throw overboard systems which were successful in the past. This often one-sided focus on learning new things during change processes, is mostly the core reason for failure. The necessity to maintain some things, and the effort required to unlearn others, are often underestimated and insufficiently considered. At the same time, it is often stated during the lead process that retaining certain things masks a resistance to learning. Resistance to learning is therefore an indispensable factor in decision-making for organisations within this lead process.

During organisational change processes (“Change“) it is important to always take note of the fact that the organisation cannot change itself. It must constantly decide whether it changes by utilising new options and possibilities or whether it changes by throwing out or ignoring innovation and remaining with the old. However, if the organisation decides to remain with the old, even though there would have been a possibility for the new, then the old will no longer be the same!

To protect our clients and customers, and to preserve their private sphere, no real names are used in this place and personal references to organisations and branches are avoided. The cases, however, are real and the events did play out as described.