Myths are real and they shape your behavior, and there are plenty of myths surrounding the work of organizational change. Perhaps the following description of a few myths I have given up will help you put your own in perspective.
Myth 1: Changes Are Sustainable
Sustainable change is an oxymoron. For years I believed I had a responsibility to “build in” follow-up mechanisms with organizations. These were intended to reinforce new leader behavior, solidify learning, make collaborative problem-solving instinctive, and promote a new culture as a “way of life.” My follow-up practice was long on team meetings, task forces, training, coordinators, and coaches.
Alternative Story. I recommend seeing whether you can sustain new practices from one meeting to the next. Organizations change one meeting at a time. Their destinies entwine in a maelstrom of markets, technology, and world events that nobody controls. Your best strategy will always be to help people do the best they can now with what they have. If you seek a new “culture,” make every meeting congruent with the culture you seek. You can have it all now. Not the outcomes, but surely the processes you advocate. The goal of all projects ought to be giving these people, in this room, at this moment, opportunities they never had before. That’s structural change. It’s controllable.
Myth 2: Training Will Fix It
Individuals receive enormous benefits from training in leader behavior, self-awareness, cultural sensitivity, and personal skills. Organizations should offer all they can afford. But do not mistake training for organizational change. In the 1970s I believed with multitudes of colleagues that training everybody transforms organizations. We trained tens of thousands to supervise, manage, appraise, cooperate, set goals, give feedback, and participate in decisions. Such training took place in peer groups, lest people embarrass themselves with those above or below. Training was intended to help people change the way their companies operated. We kept getting people ready to do what they never did. Their companies—a tangled maze of policy, procedure, programs, controls, and technologies—went on doing whatever they did before.
Alternative Story. Structural issues cannot be altered through skills and awareness training. People improve organizations using what they already know to influence policies, procedures, systems, and structures. People motivate themselves doing projects that have consequences for the whole. Paradoxically, when you empower people to act together on business tasks, they often change their behavior. Measurable outcomes follow employees’ influence in the design, control, and coordination of their work. Then training can be of enormous benefit. Fix structures first.
Myth 3: Profit Rules
If making money were a rational motivator, than everybody would do participative work redesign. That’s where the big gains lie. For many executives the bottom line is power and control. Keeping control is much more comfortable than opening a system to who-knows-what, even to make more money, especially if you can keep shareholders happy with modest gains. For many executives, the perceived risks and uncertainty of broad involvement outweigh the evidence of significant financial benefits.
Alternative Story. An organization builds infinitely more economic strength empowering people to cooperate in keeping costs down and productivity up. Indeed, some firms embrace a “triple bottom line” that includes not only money but social capital and benefits to society. They invest a percentage of profits in developing their people and supporting their communities. I did my most productive work with those who could imagine bottom lines beyond net profit. They used capital to benefit everyone.
Myth 4: Fortune 500s Are Forever
The Fortune 500s ought to be good places for organizational innovation. Consultants love claiming them as clients. Indeed, in the 1970s and 1980s they were good to me and my colleagues. Big corporations put organization development on the map. Over time, many of us came to realize Fortune 500s were among the least auspicious places for OD for multiple reasons. First, good OD requires continuity in leadership. Two, good OD seeks systems integration.
Alternative Story. It’s hard to make long-term improvements in firms that (a) are publicly traded, (b) pay quarterly dividends, and (c) churn executives at the top. This is not to say you can’t do good OD in such firms. Only be aware that you are building for today, not for the ages.
Myth 5: Organizations Learn
Organizations don’t learn. People learn. Organizations have a hard time retaining experience. I believe this holds too for the “double loop” (learning how to learn) and “triple loop” (learning how to learn how to learn) variety. Consider Kurt Lewin’s priceless idea to not just learn by doing, but also “do by learning.” He saw workplaces as laboratories for collaborative “action research,” a practice of systematic inquiry, on which I built a career. Inquiry may have been a way of life for many consultants, but not the clients. It is hard to institutionalize new norms amidst the turbulence.
Alternative Story. I believe an organization’s memory is no longer than the tenures of those in charge. I have spent years helping managers build great learning organizations that their successors took apart in months. I never met a new manager who said, “This place runs like a Swiss watch. I think I’ll leave it alone.” They all set out to improve what they inherit, even if they make things worse. Do not imagine—whether you manage or consult—that any processes you establish will survive a change in leadership. My advice is to put away your illusions if you work in a place you cannot control. Today is the future. Do your best to help people learn today with no expectations for next year.
Myth 6: Layoffs Improve Bottom Lines
Wall Street loves layoffs. Costs go down, and the stock’s price goes up. Alas, the fix turns out worse than the problem. Rensis Likert called layoffs “liquidating human assets”—trading skills, experience, future capability, and competitive advantage for short-term cash. Some argue, for example, that job security and loyalty are artifacts of an old paradigm. A hopeful new one would focus on helping people keep marketable skills, stay mobile, and value what they do. But a 2010 Newsweek cover story by Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer cites study after study to bolster the case that layoffs incur hidden costs, hurt people, undermine the future, injure a company’s reputation, diminish its capacity to act, and reduce shareholder returns over time. Pfeffer calls downsizing “copycat behavior,” a kind of contagion that infects companies. You can resist if you control your business.
Alternative Story. If I were in a cost crunch now, I would involve everybody in rethinking markets, products, services, and systems. I would push for across-the-board pay cuts to keep everybody employed. In this scenario, nobody loses jobs, health care, and homes nor ends up in a welfare line. All tighten their belts until the turnaround, when my company gains market share, increases profits, restores pay cuts, pays bonuses, and is the hub of a vibrant business community. Layoffs would be the last resort, when nothing else could save the company.
Myth 7: Hard Data Motivates Skeptics
Anybody who ever tried to influence skeptics with hard data knows how futile it is. If managers were rational, all companies would have employees designing their own work. Such involvement has been known for decades to produce gains of 20 to 40 percent in higher output and lower costs. Never underestimate the psychic benefits of positive reinforcement. You can always test this proposition for yourself. Involve people and measure the results. That’s an experiment that skeptics, locked into self-fulfilling prophecies, are loath to do.
Alternative Story. There is a “shadow” side to the data myth. That is the fact that you can assemble statistics to prove whatever you please. You can find scientific studies for and against what you eat, how you heat your house, the way you get to work, and the toothbrush you use. In the end, which data you choose to believe becomes an act of faith.
Myth 8: Diagnosis Solves the Problem
Many organizations rely on experts to diagnose situations and prescribe changes. Diagnosis means finding gaps between what is and what should be. Some experts will tell you how to close the gaps; others leave it to you. There are economic fixes, technological fixes, and people fixes aimed at every human failing. Sometimes closing one gap opens up another, for example, the computer system that saved nanoseconds while driving its users crazy.
Alternative Story. Diagnosis, like “hard data,” is a trap for the unwary. While the problems you turn up may be real, fixing them may not make an organization better. If you want people to collaborate while they compete for bonuses, forget it. If you expect creativity in a hierarchy with seven levels of management, forget it. Only you can decide which categories require immediate action and which you can live with. A diagnostic model—for example, what categories will yield the best results with the least effort—is backed only by the experience of people authorized to apply it. Labeling people “change resisters” or “in denial” is sure to evoke the behavior it predicts. “Isms” are everywhere. Learning to contain ourselves and act responsibly is a lifelong project.
Myth 9: The Technology-Saves-Time Myth
Time is the world’s least renewable resource. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The shadow side of technology is that it fragments time. The more “labor-saving” technology you have, the harder you work overall. You end up doing more than you used to, in shorter and shorter time frames, at the expense of anything else that matters. “People sit in meetings,” noted an ex-partner of mine who was a corporate OD director, “balancing the art of listening with reading and sending messages on their iPhones and laptops. During breaks they attack their cell phones. Facebook. LinkedIn. Twittering. Texting. The meetings become secondary. They are merely the place to gather as everyone becomes more and more adept at juggling priorities at a frenetic pace.”
Alternative Story. You cannot make a meeting longer without borrowing from whatever comes after. You cannot get back the days, weeks, or months spent on plans you can’t implement. Many of us run from one fruitless meeting to another, month after month, when three solid days spent with those who matter most to our work could simplify everything. The only way to check the validity of what I say is to try a three-day meeting instead of a new computer app when you want an implementable strategic plan.
Myth 10: Meetings Undermine Work
The first thing I learned when I started consulting was the endemic cynicism people dump on meetings. But meetings, like techniques, could care less how you use them. To what extent is your meeting fatigue traceable to PowerPoints nobody cares about? All major change projects, for better or worse, proceed via the reviled, maligned, and unavoidable meetings that everyone loves to hate.
Alternative Story. Meetings are the best shot you will ever have at making an organization better. Meetings of the right kind, that is. I’m advocating purposeful meetings, interactive meetings, meetings that matter, meetings where people solve problems and influence decisions. Whether you hold them live or online, you will be interacting with others for all your days in the workplace.
Marvin Weisbord is an internationally-known consultant and writer and a co-founder of Future Search Network, a nonprofit organization that involves people worldwide in voluntary social, technological, and economic change. He is the author of Productive Workplaces, Organizational Diagnosis, Discovering Common Ground, and co-author of Future Search: An Action Guide.
Reprinted by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning and Community in the 21st Century by Marvin Weisbord. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.