The author, educator and innovator, Warren Bennis, has written, I believe, some of the most inspiring and pragmatic tomes on leadership and leading change. The following are his ten ways to avoid disaster during periods of change, which of course, now means any time, all the time–except in those organizations that are dead or dying:

  1. Recruit with scrupulous honesty. Enthusiasm or plain need often inspires recruiters to transmogrify visible and real drawbacks and make them reappear as exhilarating challenges. Do not promise a lot and deliver a little. Do not try a variety of small programs marginal in impact and severely under-financed.
  2. Innovation is seductive. It attracts interesting people. Be sure the people being recruited are change agents but not agitators.
  3. Build support among like-minded people, whether or not you recruited them. Change-oriented administrators are particularly prone to act as though the organization came into being the day they arrived. This is a delusion, a fantasy of omnipotence. Rhetoric about new starts is frightening to those who sense that this new beginning is the end of their careers. There can be no change without history and continuity. In addition, some of the old hands have, besides knowledge and experience, real creativity. A clean sweep, then, is often a waste of resources.
  4. Plan for change from a solid conceptual base. Have a clear understanding of how to change as well as what to change. Planning changes is always easier than implementing them. A statement of goals is not a program. Any reorganization requires coherence and forcefulness, along with functional mechanisms for change. If change is to be permanent, it must be gradual. An incremental-reform model can be successfully utilized by drawing on a rotating nucleus of people who continually read the data provided by the organization and the society in which it operates for clues that it’s time to adapt. Such people must not be faddists, but must be hypersensitive to ideas whose hour has come. They also must know when ideas are antithetical to the organization’s purposes and values and when they will enhance and strengthen the organization.
  5. Don’t settle for rhetorical change. Significant change cannot simply be decreed. Any organization has two structures: one on paper and another that consists of a complex set of intramural relationships.
  6. Don’t allow those who are opposed to change to appropriate basic issues. The successful revolutionary always makes sure that respectable people are not afraid of what is to come. In the same way, the successful change agent makes sure that the old guard isn’t frightened by the prospect of change.
  7. Know the territory. Know rights as well as the law.
  8. Appreciate environmental factors. No matter how laudable or profitable or imaginative, a change that increases discomfort in the organization is probably doomed. For example, adding a sophisticated new computer system is probably a good thing, but it can instantly be seen as a bad thing if it results in overcrowded offices.
  9. Avoid future shock. When an administrator becomes too involved in planning, in the next step, in the future, he or she frequently forgets the past and neglects the present. As a result, before the plan goes into effect, employees are probably already opposed to it. They, after all, have to function in the here and now, and if their boss’s eye is always on tomorrow, he or she is not giving them the attention and support they need.
  10. Remember that change is most successful when those who are affected are involved in the planning. This is a platitude of planning theory, but it is as true as it sounds trite.

Means must be found to stimulate the pursuit of truth–that is, the true nature of the organization’s problems- -in an open and democratic way. This calls for classic means: an examined life, a spirit of inquiry and genuine experimentation, a life based on discovering new realities, taking risks, suffering occasional defeats, and not fearing the surprises of the future. In other words, the model for truly innovative organizations in an era of constant change is the scientific model. As scientists seek and discover truths, so organizations must seek and discover truths–that carefully, that thoroughly, that honestly, that imaginatively, and that courageously.

Kelly McDermott


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