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Book Review – Harvard Business Review on Change – W. Max Eichbaum

by on November 11, 2007

A Cybernetic Accomplishment

Like most topical article collections from the Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business Review on Change is a survey of judiciously selected relevant works dealing with a common subject area. It contains eight twenty to thirty page articles focused on issues relating to organizational change. While the articles all share a common domain, each of them varies substantially in its scope, area of focus, approach and attitude. Still, there are themes that persist throughout the text and form an overarching dialog. It is this overarching dialog that illuminates complex issues rather than prescribing simple solutions and eventually sets this collection apart from being just another myopic book on change management.

The Individual Pieces

1. In Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail, Kotter highlights, in chronological order, the eight typical errors of change management efforts. His simplistic framework provides a good basis on which to later explore more complex issues.

2. In Building Your Company’s Vision, Collins and Porras build on the concept of vision and its role in any change management effort. They describe a framework for understanding the components of a successful vision. It is comprised of the organization’s core ideology, the combination of its values and purpose, and its envisioned future, a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” accompanied with a vivid description. It concludes with a few examples that clearly articulate the elements of their framework and provide grounding for their claims.

3. In Managing Change: the Art of Balancing, Duck argues that change management efforts should not be dissected into small actionable pieces for fear of losing the forest to the trees. Instead, he asserts that they must be managed as a complex whole, like a mobile. As a means to accomplish this impressive undertaking, he recommends forming a dedicated transition management team that disbands after the change effort has stabilized.

4. In The Reinvention Rollercoaster: Risking the Future for a Powerful Future, Goss, Pascale, and Athos discuss the difference between improving and reinventing. They highlight a framework for managing and capitalizing on the pains of organizational reinvention. It focuses on five main steps: constructing a team with a critical mass and diversity of stakeholders, conducting an organizational audit to know where you are starting your change effort from, creating urgency, harnessing contention to derive constructive gains from differences, engineering breakdowns to reveal weaknesses.

5. In Changing the Mind of the Corporation, Martin focuses on a corporation’s path towards needing change and the issues that inevitably arise. It begins with the organization’s conception based largely on the founder’s vision. Then, steering mechanisms are engineered to maintain the founding vision and respond to economic forces. Over time, these steering mechanisms become outdated, the feedback within the organization is disrupted and a new vision is needed. At this point, defensive routines emerge that draw the new vision and the residual founding vision come into conflict. Martin argues that this conflict is inevitable and that it must be dealt with actively. He suggests actively structuring the debate as well as reverse engineering the new strategy from existing conditions or processes.

6. In Why do Employees Resist Change?, Strebel discusses the combative dynamic that can emerge between employers and employees during a change management effort. Furthermore, he prescribes a strategy for dealing with this conflict. He argues for a renegotiation of the personal compact between the employee and employer as a function of the greater change management strategy. This theory is examined through two case studies.

7. In Reshaping an Industry: Lockheed Martin’s Survival Story, Augustine examines the activities that took place at Lockheed Martin during a tumultuous period for the industry and how they were able to not just survive, but prosper.

8. In Successful Change Programs Begin with Results, Schaffer and Thomson describe a change management framework that is result driven. They argue that setting result expectations can be used to articulate and guide a change effort. In order to do so, the vision must be divided into attainable pieces and implemented over time.

Persisting Issues

Urgency – The first and fourth articles both discuss the concept of urgency, but in different capacities. Kotter argues for the creation of a sense of urgency so that it can act as a change agent and enlist support for a change effort. He believes that a sense of urgency with increase ones natural tendency to work together to move forward. On the other hand, Goss, Pascale, and Athos argue that urgency should be used as a tool for uncovering the main issues behind the need for change, for encouraging people to talk about the dark organizational secrets. In one case, urgency is enlisted for a constructive team building purpose. In another case, it is enlisted for deconstructing barriers to change.

Vision – The first, second, and fifth articles all discuss the role of vision in a change management effort. Kotter and Collins and Porras agree that vision is critical to a change management effort and provide its conceptual underpinning. But, Martin is quick to acknowledge that that competing visions can be as disruptive as they are useful. He takes a more responsible approach to the use of visions and suggests that they can be iterative and illuminating processes.

Team led change – The first, third and fourth articles all discuss the use of teams for leading change but all with a different focus. Kotter argues that the guiding coalition must have sufficient power with senior executives at its core. Also, Kotter argues that the team must be comprised of 20 to 50 individuals, a relatively large team. Duck argues that it must be comprised of dedicated fulltime members that disband after the change stabilizes. Duck stresses the importance of the team being only focused on the change effort. Goss, Pascale and Athos are more concerned with assembling a team with enough stakeholder diversity. Although all these authors agree that a team must be used to lead change, their views on how the team should be constructed and organized is very different.

As a whole or in pieces – The third and eighth articles highlighted two very distinct views of how change management should be implemented. Duck argues adamantly that the effort must be maintained as a whole. If not, Duck worries that an organization could get lost in the details and forget that they are only meaningful with respect to the greater whole. On the other hand, Schaffer and Thomson argue that a change management initiative should be broken into small components so that they can be articulated as attainable expectations. This is imperative to their result driven strategy. Falling at opposite ends of this issue’s spectrum, these articles highlight the diversity of ideas in this domain.

Dissent – The fourth, fifth and the sixth articles all try to tackle the issue of individuals as barriers to change. Strebel prescribed a method by which the employees and the employer reinvent their relationship as an active part of the change process. Goss, Pascale and Athos raise this issue as an element of the reinvention process and address it is two ways. First, they attempt to diffuse it with a diverse team leading the change. Second, they attempt to harness the contention as a process for gaining feedback and refining change. In this way, they strive to make positive gains from a typically negative situation. Martin focuses almost all effort on prescribing methods for resolving dissent such as structured debate and reverse engineering concepts. These methods are far less optimistic and focus mainly on putting fires out. On the other hand, Martin’s was the only one to deal with the issue in a way that was realistic and accepted that bad things happen, communications break down, and eventually you have to just role your sleeves up and work hard to resolve things.

Optimistic or realistic – The attitude of every article in the collection falls somewhere along the spectrum of optimism vs. realism. Not that any of them are solely one or the other, but some clearly lean more towards optimism and others clearly towards realism. For example, Kotter is often overly optimistic in his avoidance of issues such as victims of previous change and short term losses. He covers a lot of ground in his article, but he clearly refuses to discuss situations that are not perfect. On the other hand, Martin tends to get bogged down in the ugly reality of change management and spends an inordinate amount of time on worst case scenarios. This diversity in attitudes adds richness to the text as a whole. Sometimes, an optimistic approach can allow a writer to cover more territory and provide a wide spanning image of change management. Other times, it is useful to have someone really get into one issue and expose its realistic complexity.


The Harvard Business Review on Change does a responsible job of providing a diverse survey of change management literature and highlighting the complexity of the issues involved. All too often, authors allow themselves to over simplify change management issues for the benefit of elegance and to deal with pesky scope creep. Furthermore, for an area of research that is largely anecdotal, it is tempting for authors to pay attention only to supporting examples and avoid challenging evidence.

While at some points the Harvard Business Review on Change does fall victim to inelegance – the articles often contradict one another – the benefit of multiple diverse writings is well worth it. From the differing theories emerge timeless issues that are more important than any one theory. In the end, the reader is left with more questions than answers, the hallmark of any worthwhile read.

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