December 16, 2005

Take the middle path. This is an often-repeated sermon in life. Many a time this ‘middle path’ approach doesn’t work in business, particularly during times of rapid change. Management of organizational change has to be in either white or black. Anything grey is a sign of disaster.

Often organizations fail to reap the fruits of change because they want to ride two ships at the same time. On one hand they don’t want to completely give up the comfort level of the past and on the other hand they want to march into the progressive future. The end result is an organizational concoction that tastes bad and is also unhealthy. And the person responsible for this is the leader of the organization.

Any large-scale change is always accompanied by chaos. But there is a choice. Either experience the chaos at the very start of the change process by shaking up people and processes to bring them out of their comfort zone or walk the middle path and experience chaos at the end. A changing organization cannot escape chaos but definitely the leader can manage and time it for best results.

Why middle path does not work?
The biggest problem with ‘middle path’ approach is that it creates conflicts in the organizational goals. Any initiation of a change process has certain objectives. ‘Middle path’ approach simply tries to negate it. As a result, organizational discord sets in and the organization appears to being pulled in opposite direction with equally opposite force. And in the end it lands nowhere. It gets trapped.

Let’s take an example (yes, real life example). A family managed business run in a traditional manner thinks of changing itself to a professionally managed world-class organization. So it hires professionals. It gets the best technology. It tries to develop the best processes. It finds out best practices and tries to adopt them. So far so good. But the problem starts when the leader doesn’t feel comfortable to shun his comfort zone. He is not ready to relinquish control. The key decision makers are still old people who have been in the organization for long and are quite experienced but have their own set of limitations. They have limited vision as well as limited thinking horizon. Sophisticated new technology gets manned by old people after brief initiation training. Old people develop new processes. Paternalistic attitude continues. And while all this is going on the newly hired professionals are either executing the commands of old timers who still call the shots or leave the organization after a while in frustration. Isn’t it a classic case of ‘old wine in a new bottle’?

This is not the end. After a certain timeframe things turn to worse. You have sophisticated technology in place but faulty logic running them. You have high-end softwares and platforms but people managing them don’t have an idea of their true potential. To streamline your supply chain you start sophisticated forecasting methods but at the end forecast is wrong because the old fashioned frontline manager who has to revalidate sales forecast is neither technically competent to understand the nuances of sales forecasting nor he understands the relationship of forecasting with other spheres of his operations. Babu culture still prevails in the office and files take ages to move. Incompetence is still tolerated. Attrition rate is high, mostly of professionals who come with a dream in their eyes to accomplish something challenging but leave highly disillusioned. Blame game, taking undue credit, and passing the buck on others are still the norm. In other words, there is this ‘feel good’ factor but hardly anything good. Basically, it is a confused organization.

It’s people and processes ultimately
Any change initiative is basically all about people, processes, and empowerment. If you have the right people with the right empowerment at the right place with the right process at the right time then three-fourth the job is done. But if you have all the technologies of the world and all the resources at your disposal except qualified and empowered people then the job is yet to begin. Here comes the supreme role of the leader leading his organization to change. He is one person capable of putting in right people with right empowerment at the right place. This is also the time when the leader has to talk straight and then walk his talk. First the leader has to come out of his own comfort zone before asking his people to shun their zones of comfort. Then he has to send a clear message across the organization that “either shape-up or ship-out”. There should not be a third option available if the organization is to orchestrate the change in the way it has envisioned it. Times of change are tough so the leader has to be tough. And tough leaders often make great change leaders. If Jack Welch was a great change leader it was because he was ‘neutron Jack’. Patience is not a virtue while leading an organizational change initiative.

It all boils down to saying that change is a process that requires a lot of courage and guts from the leader. And taking a ‘middle path’ is definitely not a courageous proposition. Either do it all or don’t do at all.