A Vision for Change

By Denton, D. Keith | Industrial Management, May/June 1997 | Go to article overview

A Vision for Change


Denton, D. Keith, Industrial Management


Tom Peters said that only those ready to confront and master change each day will thrive in the 1990s and beyond. That statement remains just as true today as it was when he made it in 1990. Change is everybody's business, because it is an aspect of everyday life. Those who do it best are able to master change; those who do not, let change master them.

Those who are able to master change define a clear vision and, just as importantly, show people how to achieve it. Anything less is just wishful thinking. Robert Fritz defines the process of identifying a vision and showing people how to achieve it as "creative tension." He says creative tension comes from seeing clearly where you want to be (your vision), then telling everyone the truth about where you are at the present. The difference between where you want to be and current reality generates a natural tension. Such tension can be resolved by either raising the current reality toward your vision or lowering your vision toward reality.

Leaders are able to create this tension. If there is no vision, there is no tension. If there is no tension, there can be no change. For change to be possible, you have to have both a vision of the future and an understanding of the present reality. Neither alone is enough to cause change. If people understand reality-even if it is a reality of desperation-change will not occur. To change, you must feel motivated by what might be. It is the leaders' responsibility to create this picture of what can be, and in the process create this creative tension.

The role of the leader

Peter M. Senge is director of systems thinking and organizational learning at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He describes the role of the leader by asking a group of managers to pretend their organization is an ocean liner. He asks, "If your organization were an ocean liner, who would you be?" Not surprisingly, most of the managers' answers are, "the captain." Others say they see themselves as the navigator, or even the engineers stoking the fire below. Some, perhaps hoping they are giving the right answer, say they see themselves as the ship's social director, making sure everyone is involved and communicating effectively.

While all of these positions may be important, one eclipses them in importance. Senge emphasizes that a neglected leadership role is the ship's designer. If the captain says to change course, but no rudder has been designed into the ship, then there can be no change. If an order is given to turn left, but the ship is designed to turn right only, then no amount of effort to change direction will matter. If you want to implement rapid change, but the organization is designed to resist change, no amount of barking orders will matter. Design is the key to change. You cannot avoid designeven inaction is a design decision.

There is more to organizational design than simply moving around departments or changing lines of authority. Organizations, like ships, need a superstructure-a foundation on which everything else is constructed. An organization's superstructure is its purpose, vision, and core values by which people act and interact. Both ships and organizations can be created in a haphazard manner. The truly great ones have some kind of structure that underpins key decisions.

An example of how core values and ingrained vision can affect decisions involves the Tylenol tampering case in 1982. After several deaths were reported when people took Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson pulled the product off shelves and destroyed 31 million capsules-even the ones that were tested and found safe. Senge notes that while such a decision was a costly one, the company had no other choice. It was a decision designed into the organization more than 40 years before.

Any great organization needs a vision to live by. At Johnson and Johnson, the culture is built on four interrelated components:

* Service to the customer comes first;

* Service to the employees and managers comes second;

* Service to the community comes third; and

* Service to the stockholders comes last. …

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