Beware Brilliant Strategies That Change What You Are

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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 midmorning 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 the 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 any 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 vs. 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 lability: There's the ``what matters happens by the age of 5'' crowd (friends of Freud) vs. 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. …