Consulting Complexities: How Intention Gets Undermined in Change Management

This post on the complexities in change management work is the fourth in our series that looks at what interferes with our capacity to serve, even in the face of our best intentions. It speaks to the industry as a whole, though both internal and external consultants will recognize the tensions between doing what top management asks for and providing genuine service to a client. Future posts will get into other complexities that undermine our best efforts. Winding up the series will be some thoughts on what to do.

Some time ago, when pressures for better quality and sharper customer focus added to the traditional pressures for cost reduction and accountability, organizations decided that what was needed was a change in culture. We needed workplaces in which people acted as owners, employees felt empowered and involved, change was welcomed, and patriarchal management practices were driven out.

To achieve these goals, managers brought in consultants and charged internal change agents to end command-and-control and bring in more participation. Bosses were to become coaches, employees would now be called associates. All were to work in teams, even across functions. It reached the point where employees were to evaluate their bosses, just as college students had been evaluating their teachers.

All of this was a large undertaking, which created a logical need for consultation.  The ethical question arose from the disparity between the claims and the reality. That consulting complexity still exists today.

The promise of culture change was essentially that a shift in power would take place: Teams close to the work would more control over how the work was done and how money was spent. Much of the consulting work done to this end, however, was done in a way that undermined a true resurgence of worker power and choice. Change management became and becomes a colonial venture.

To begin with, the profession approached the work from the belief that the workers were incapable of exercising more choice without intensive training. They had to be given certain tools. They had to be taught to work in teams. They had to be persuaded that they should act in ways that served the well-being of the business. And it was the consulting companies and training departments that owned these tools and methods of persuasion, which they sold through a series of training programs to the employees.

The change management tools were not limited to training products. There were major projects to define the new competencies that would be required in the new culture. There were new assessment and measurement products that would help gauge the progress of the change effort. There were major communications programs to publicize and explain this new world both to employees and to the outside world.

The consulting complexities I want to point out about these efforts are not really about their effectiveness. The issues are about the story about them. The reports are mixed on how much any given culture actually changed, depending on who you talk to. If you talk to the top management who sponsored the effort or the internal and external consultants who implemented it, you would hear that the effort was very successful and the culture had indeed shifted.

But if you talk to employees in most companies that made the investment, you generally would find that there was not much change in their daily work lives: They might work in teams, but individualism is still the dominant mode of operation; and while they may have more budget and spending authority than before, top management is still very much in control and patriarchy is alive and well.

Besides the story, what is more disturbing is the way that consultants and managers approach the task of making organizational changes. Whenever the change effort becomes a top-down, cascading program, it serves to build the business of the service provider, and  serves to simply reinforce the existing organizational culture and belief systems about control and power, then the work is open to question.

The first order of business for consultants––internal and external––entering into any change management effort is to challenge the assumptions that the top is an appropriate driver, that experts know best what is needed, and that employees lack tools and capacities.