All I Ever Needed to Know about Change Management I Learned at Engineering School

By Dickhout, Roger | The McKinsey Quarterly, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

All I Ever Needed to Know about Change Management I Learned at Engineering School


Dickhout, Roger, The McKinsey Quarterly


You don't just "build" the organization, you make it "go round and round"

"Give me a lever," he said, "and I will move the world"

Is your change exothermic or endothermic?

I have always been fascinated by how things work. As a child, I would follow my father around the yard, helping him with various projects. How, I wondered, did the load in the wheelbarrow always balance? Why could I move a big rock with a crowbar, but not without? How does cement dry underwater?

It is hardly surprising that when I came of age, I followed in my father's footsteps once more, this time to engineering school. Here I learned the precise formulae that govern the forces of nature. Boring to some, for me these axioms held a special magic, because understanding them conferred great power - the power to harness the forces of nature for the works of man.

I have strayed from my professional roots. Over the past decade at McKinsey, I have helped clients design and execute major change programs, and led research projects on frontline change, operational improvement, and company-wide transformation. I have borrowed many good ideas from the literature on personal and organizational change. Often, however, it has left me wondering how change really works.

I am a mechanical engineer. We mechanical engineers tease our civil engineering colleagues that they only have to figure out how to make things stand up or fall down. Mechanical engineers have to figure out how to make things go round and round - a skill of a higher order. Making change always seemed to me like mechanical engineering, but a lot of the literature reads as if it were written by civil engineers.

You can read books on the four, five, or six things you have to do to make a great company stand rather than fall, as though the corporation were a civil structure that you could make stand up, and leave it at that. These static, normative models are admittedly helpful, presenting as they do a vision of what "good" looks like, and identifying some of the changes that can bring it about. But they do not really capture the dynamic characteristics of change. They will not bring to life what happens when a dynamic system gets out of balance, when momentum falters, when the best-laid plans yield unexpected results. They won't explain, in other words, how you get change to go round and round.

My colleagues and others tell me that business leaders like the static, normative way of thinking. This article, then, may not be for everyone. But there may be a few other poor souls who, like me, got hooked early on understanding the basic laws that govern action. So I decided to write down the five basic premises I consider as I help clients design their change programs - ideas I think of as natural laws of organizational change.

These laws are inspired by the power of scientific thinking. Unlike scientific laws, however, they have not been conclusively proven through controlled experiments. They represent a personal perspective developed through reading and research, as well as through trial and observation in the daily routine of client service. They are: the law of constituent balance, the law of leverage, the law of momentum, the law of feedback and adjustment, and the law of leadership.

The law of constituent balance

The need for major change is often driven by an imbalance between a company's constituent stakeholders: shareholders, employees, customers, communities, and management. This basic law answers the question "Why change?"

Nature consists of ecosystems in balance - structures in which different species live interdependently. When an ecosystem is knocked out of balance for whatever reason, a period of often violent flux follows, during which scarce resources are dynamically redistributed and the system arrives at a new balance that better reflects the new environment. Similarly, when constituent interests are out of balance in a large corporation, a power struggle erupts. …

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