Tom Peters

Consultants believe in change. It keeps bread on their tables. That’s as true for conservative sorts (selling corporate renewal via rational strategic plans) as it is for “touchy-feely” types (bent upon altering your “corporate culture”). Ordinary folks are hopeful, too: Witness the millions of salvation-by-the-numbers, self-help books we buy each year.

Yet most companies fail to execute the brilliant strategies their consultants propose. Most who swear by the transforming nature of their three-day “culture-change workshop” revert to type on the job by mid-morning Tuesday. And for every person who has bought a diet book and kept off those 20 unwanted pounds, there are scores who put them back on.

The change debate rages from the Odd Fellows’ Lodge to pristine halls of academe. Take organizational change. One school sees organizations as malleable, and in constant flux. But another draws inspiration from biological models: Births and deaths of companies are normal; but the individual organization is born of happenstance and passes away when what made it good becomes dysfunctional. Conventional theories “treated organizations as rational, flexible and speedy adapters to changing environmental circumstances,” Cornell’s Michael Hannan and John Freeman write in their book Organizational Ecology. But “the organizations we knew … (were) anything but flexible and quick in … response to changing opportunities and constraints in the environment.”

Then there are those who look at change through the lens of leadership. Change demands superb leaders who fire us up to shed our shopworn ways, some croon. Opponents, such as University of California Professor Bob Cole, vow that the leadership variable in business is grossly overrated. Japanese economic performance has been remarkable, but few Japanese, he says, can name any/many home-grown business leaders. Americans, by contrast, are ensnared by “the cult of the CEO,” as one commentator labeled it.

Among students of psychology, the change debate has raged for a century. “Nature versus nurture” is one divider: Once you’re born, is it too late to change? Those who downplay the role of genes don’t necessarily champion human ability: There’s the “what matters happens by the age of five” crowd (friends of Freud) versus the “change forever” gang (behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s followers, who insist that we can turn on a dime right up to the last gasp).

These differing views have enormous consequences for the economy, the firm and the individual. Consider economic policy. If you believe that corporations have a tough time changing, you let the old ones die when their time comes—e.g., favor strict antitrust enforcement, fight consortia and collusive joint ventures, and support entrepreneurialism via a minuscule capital gains tax. But if you see corporate change as a walk in the park, you’ll champion business combinations and other policies to boost big, powerful outfits—given your faith that such gargantuans can switch colors to suit the season.

Prescriptions for guiding the firm are about the same: Pessimists about adaptivity support the 3M or Johnson & Johnson model, which fosters the creation of numerous, independent divisions and eschews the allure of synergy. Optimists about change rely on coordinated strategic planning to guide the institution toward whatever ideal tomorrow it chooses.

As for you and me, we’ll spend ourselves poor on weekend, “new you” seminars if we think we can readily conquer shortcomings. If we’re resigned to being flawed (yet wish to succeed), we’ll exploit to the hilt whatever we’ve got.

I see change everywhere. Yet I’m extremely pessimistic about planned change. Yes, CEO Mike Walsh crafted quick, dramatic change at stodgy Union Pacific Railroad. Vaughn Beals did as much at Harley-Davidson. These outfits were blessed with crushing outside pressure; yet even in these cases, whether the change will outlast the leader is problematic. But there’s a more durable argument against pointing to such examples as proof of corporate malleability. They are, I fear, exceptions that prove the rule. Corporate saviors are most remarkable for their sparse ranks! Forget corporate or national policy that depends on a Walsh or Beals emerging at the critical moment.

A while back, I was outside planting bulbs. The earth flew. I was splattered with mud. Soaked with sweat. I looked up to find my wife engulfed in laughter. “You dig like you write like you cook like …” Her list went on and on. She is a poet, and parsimonious in the use of words. I started to laugh, too: She plants (carefully, beautifully) like she writes like she cooks …

Quantum mechanics tells us that we exchange all of our particles every seven years—with rocks, trees, the air, and one another. Now that’s change! On the other hand, with the exception of a few more gray hairs and a few pounds plus or minus, Tom-the-digger of seven years ago is readily recognizable as Tom-the-digger of today. Sure, I’ve got a spiffy new set of muons; but they seem to garden just about the way the old ones did. In short, beware of individual, corporate, or national paths to nirvana that require becoming something much different than what one was at birth or founding.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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