Top down or bottom up change – a false dichotomy

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I recently helped organise a conference about “transformational change”.  The discussion ranged widely but two questions that came up have stayed with me. The first concerns the degree to which change can be “managed” and the second, whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”.  I’d like to reflect a little on those questions, starting with the second.

The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches.  They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising.  Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”.  They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.

I’m not so sure.  I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here.  I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change. Continue reading

Addressing resistance to change

I recently circulated John Beckford’s blog  challenging some of the ways in which organisations delay or avoid necessary changes.  I got positive feedback from several people but also this comment: “I think much more management consultancy needs to attend to delivery and some of the deeper resistances that lie within any one of us. The how-to seems critical”.  As I said to my correspondent at the time, that gives me a clear steer on the subject for my next blog.  Here is a link to John’s blog – I see my response to my reader’s comments very much as a companion piece: https://intelligentorganisation.com/uncategorised/toddler-steps-change-management/

So, for this blog we will assume that the organisational leadership has recognised the need to make a significant change but feels concern about the extent to which such a project will be supported or meet resistance from individuals and groups in the organisation, including, perhaps, those in leadership at the next level down in the hierarchy.  How should those leading change proceed? Continue reading

Whose business is it anyway?

The collapse of BHS has been met with dismay.  Pensions are at risk, many are out of work, the former chairman stands accused of taking vast sums out of the business and a British institution has disappeared from the High Street.  It is a sorry story and very distressing for those involved, but it also raises a question: whose organisation is it? Continue reading

Problems and potential in the system

Models of organisation 3

We all see organisations through different lenses. One commentator says that organisations are all about the people (‘our greatest asset’) a second will attribute success to efficient processes (‘a well-oiled machine’) others seek gifted and heroic leaders (overpaid but ‘worth it’).

Meanwhile, sustained organisational success remains elusive:  experience suggests that very few of today’s FTSE 100 companies will be in existence, never mind successful, in 30 years’ time.

In recent blogs I’ve been looking at how the models in our heads determine the way we manage our organisations and how we address their problems.  I’m not arguing that any particular model is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  But (to paraphrase Stafford Beer) some may be more useful than others and being aware of the model we use and opening ourselves up to other possibilities might give us an advantage in the tough world of organisational survival. In this blog I will explore a model (of organisations as systems) that offers richer possibilities for problem-solving and has the additional advantage of allowing the organisation to shift the focus from problem solving to the realisation of potential. Continue reading

Assumptions at work

Models of organisation 2

In my previous blog I suggested that we are guided more than we may realise by the mental model we have about how our organisation works.  We deal with reality by conceptualising it, by creating a framework for interpreting and managing it: we do this in our organisations as we do with life in general.  I invited you to consider what your model might be and whether it is hindering or helping you.

The problem that immediately arises is that our models are usually held largely unconsciously and reveal themselves as the assumptions we implicitly make about how things should be done.  These assumptions may become more apparent (and thus, open to challenge) if we see how they manifest themselves in practice.  So I thought I would offer some sample solutions to the two common organisational problems I mentioned in the last blog but did not discuss further.  Perhaps some will ring bells with you. Continue reading

Models of organisation

How do the assumptions we make limit or help us?

Organisations differ in many ways, but most organisations, in most sectors, have similar problems.  Some common examples follow:

Managers spend a large amount of time doing work that those who report to them should be doing – and no-one has any time to think and plan

Parts of the organisation operate in ‘silos’ and act in a way that actively creates problems for, even sabotages, other parts of the organisation

Despite a lot of effort, team-building sessions and perfectly amicable relationships senior teams find it extremely difficult to work constructively and productively together

Each of these problems could be addressed by taking particular actions to fix them.  But they may also raise a more fundamental question, that of how we think about the organisation. Continue reading

My ideal client

Today I accidentally rang my best client at 2.30 in the morning local time.  Oops. The response?  She laughed groggily, I laughed and apologised, said I’d go, but she insisted on spending 20 minutes talking about the issues I’d rung her to discuss.  I do not suggest that I have any expectation that my clients should welcome such calls, but the incident is, nonetheless, revealing.  It made me think about the relationships I aim to build with my clients and the qualities I look for in them. Continue reading

Church: organisation or Body of Christ

In the Church Times last week Martyn Percy criticised the Church’s use of ‘secular models of organisation” under the headline ‘It’s not an organisation, it’s the Body of Christ’. (See: http://goo.gl/EznDGa for the original article – you may need to be a subscriber to read it in full)  Here is my response, which may or may not also appear in the letters column of the Church Times!

The first thing is to say that if the use of organisational thinking indeed results in the intrusion of a rootless commercialism, over-simplification of complex ideas, an instrumental culture of objectives and results or a tendency to bureaucracy then I don’t want it either. I share the concern that there is already too much bureaucracy: this, to me, is an example of how the Church is adept at borrowing the less appropriate and attractive features of the secular world! The Church can feel over-administered and under-powered as a result. This can be remedied partly by a renewal in spiritual practice and in theology – but also by a richer understanding of the learning that is around about organisations. Continue reading