Corporate, Large-scale Change — Doomed From the Start?

Over the last decade or so, many management theorists and gurus have said, and the anecdotes have concurred, that the majority of corporate “change management” initiatives have failed to produce the benefits originally articulated. And as we’ve seen in both corporations and political systems, entrenched systems and paradigms do not change, transform, or evolve easily.

In recent news, for example, Hewlett-Packard’s celebrity CEO and Chairwoman, Carly Fiorina, was asked by the board of directors to resign because, according to reports, she had been brought in to change things and had failed in her objectives. H-P brought in Fiorina to shake things up in the entrenched bureaucracy of the mammoth organization, and yet at the same time, remained stalwartly attached to “the H-P Way.”

You can’t change any company without changing its way, and thus “the way” of its people, though the “real way” may be quite different than the “ideal way” printed on the wall and in the annual reports. In many companies, the ideal way is very much an illusion, and the real way quite a bit different. The long-admired H-P Way — the culture and way of working that ran behind and underneath all things done in and through the company — no doubt survived, while its change-agent CEO was asked to leave, having failed to change that large system to the extent expected by the board.

In such instances, an entrenched system resists, and then expels, the change-agent or agitator. Indeed, it may be completely unrealistic to expect significant or radical change — or expect radical change agents — to be successful in established large systems with entrenched and even celebrated unchanging cultures. Unless the company is also ready to relinquish its “old way” and transform via a new way.

The challenges of large-scale change

Why is change so difficult in the large system? Why do true “change agents” ultimately get expelled from the entrenched system? Why do large-scale, entrenched systems so stubbornly resist transformation or evolution into “something else”? Is it possible to change entrenched systems, and if so, how?

In many large corporations, and other large systems, efforts aimed at system or paradigm change are mechanical at best. Real change, in most cases, is the last thing most of these companies or entrenched systems want, despite the ‘change management’ moniker.

Indeed, the very structure and long-held culture of most large corporations (and some other organizations as well) creates an almost impenetrable barrier to real transformation. It doesn’t tolerate anything other than the most superficial changes, more akin to reorganizing the deck chairs than redesigning the deck — or the ship.

There are several reasons for this, including:

  • The current format of the large corporation or large-scale system precludes any change that would alter its primary and established purpose;
  • The underlying agendas, dominant beliefs and expectations of the “traditional paradigm” are supported by the current ways of operating, leading, communicating and working;
  • The entrenched systems and “unseen intelligence” or dynamics and culture of the traditional systems are loath to tolerate anything that threatens their existence, and will often seem to “fight back” against the change and its agents;
  • The bottom line priorities of the corporation or large-scale system are well-served by the current mode of operating, or the dominant paradigm, regardless of the other external costs or crimes against the common good.

Even the most skillful and well-intentioned leaders — those who consider themselves “nice guys” in private life and who may be considered brilliant by their peers — are severely impeded in any attempts at real change, much less real ethics, or actual responsibility to anything other than that which feeds the utterly ravenous and amoral machine that is the larger, publicly traded corporation.

Social responsibility? Sure, as long as it’s a fluff-piece that boosts image without challenging the top priority: minimized costs and maximized short-term returns for major investors. This is the case whether the large system is a large, publicly held corporation, or a large political system or empire.

What about spiritual-value alignment, idealistic values, or ethics? Pretty much the same thing: it sounds good as long as it doesn’t infringe upon “the way things are” — which is another way of saying minimized costs and maximized short-term returns for major investors.

Hidden barriers to large-scale change

This is why most change efforts don’t fulfill original expectations, and certainly don’t make good on the initial change management rhetoric about “synergies” and so on. Most change efforts are doomed, unless one of several things is redefined at the onset:

  •  True expectations or agendas, which are often different (sometimes radically so) from the public rhetoric;
  • The strength and persistence of the existing way of being and doing in the organization (and thus in the people that conform and fit into it) — the spoken and unspoken norms, mores, culture, expectations, and beliefs;
  • The very nature of the contemporary large corporation, and its rules, highest priorities, and accepted paradigms;
  • The nature of change, so that it includes intangible as well as tangible or operational aspects, thus working to transform the “unseen intelligence” of the system dynamic as well as its “deck chairs”.

Large systems — whether large corporations or empires or political states — use the feel-good emotional spin at the surface to keep those upon whom the system depends motivated and participating. When the underlying agendas or truths of the system are in sync with the communicated agenda, this is great, or at least honest. Participants don’t have an erosion of soul and wellbeing that stems from a gap between the illusion and the reality.

But when there is a gap — when the gap is large, particularly —between what’s said and what’s done, there is a slow death that eats away at the heart, soul and psyche. We know when a thing is a lie, even when we’re not ready to admit it to ourselves, much less publicly. But still, recognized or not, it eats away at us, like a parasite or cannibal.

Accepting the paradigm, or changing the dream

We can either “fess up” to the lie, admit the truth, and get real about our own participation in it — because we are co-responsible — or we can tire of the lie and demand that the underlying structures and agendas be recalibrated to serve more mindful, healthful purposes and ends. If we don’t want to demand, we can simply go about changing the system from within and without.

We can hold ourselves and others responsible, or we can continue to die the slow death, corroded by the great lie while we rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

But none of this is to say that large-scale and corporate systems can’t be changed. History shows that indeed they can be changed, or radically transformed. As Nobel Laureate and former Czech President Vaclav Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” demonstrates, this is sometimes a slow but steady effort, with “under the radar” change agents; and sometimes the radical change is brought about by a more sudden or jarring occurrence that destabilizes the large-scale system’s very support structure and shifts the “hidden intelligence” or dynamic — the unseen, intangible factors that are usually under-valued or ignored in most formal change efforts.

If we want a better vision — if we want real change and transformation, real and positive outcomes and effects — we have only to “change the dream” — a phrase from several indigenous cultures — and see a new vision of what’s possible come into being. Real change requires a different, more full or whole way of seeing, being, and doing than we currently address.

Once we “see with new eyes,” and approach needed transformation accordingly, our change efforts can yield real transformation, and we all become inspired leaders in creating and living a new dream and the reality that is worthy of us as children of Spirit.

This article was originally featured at Ivy Sea Online and is reprinted with permission.