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Book Review – Managing Change and Transition – Usha Jose

by on November 12, 2007

One of the very popular books in Harvard Business Essentials series, ‘Managing Change and Transition’ emphasizes the importance of successfully implementing change initiatives in order to sustain progress. The book communicates very strongly and ingenuously how settling into routines can be detrimental to progress. Change often surfaces as a stranger, leaving everyone around to guess at least some of the details involved. This, along with the comfort of complacency makes many organizations averse to change. Nevertheless change is essential for progress. After reading it, I consider “Managing Change and Transition” as a mine of practical wisdom in change management.

Most of the times organizations dealing with change do not have a pleasant experience because they are not prepared for it. The book opens with a comprehensive description of different types of change and how different strategies help to effectively deal with them. It also gives valuable advice on how to manage change constructively and to ride the waves of change without causing much collateral damage. The book offers an excellent explanation of Theory ‘O’ and ‘E’ which makes a very interesting reading. Theory E change is intended to increase shareholder value dramatically and mostly is triggered by financial crisis. The book sites Jack Welch’s 25 percent head count reduction in GE as an example of this kind of change. Theory O change is more a change strategy for good times, with no real ‘do or die’ situation propelling it. Usually such change efforts are undertaken by companies “to invigorate their cultures and capabilities.” Neither Theory E nor O can guarantee success always, but when used wisely in right proportions and at right times, it makes a lethal combination in taking the organization to new heights. The acquaintance with these theories will help us to analyze any change situation on a new platform and help us in deciding if the change is appropriate and if the organization is ready for it.

The highlight of the book is the discussion of seven steps in change management. The discussion entails a new approach towards change efforts which, if followed rigorously can help organizations in successfully implementing change. According to the author, any effective change starts by identifying and clearly defining the business problem. The answer to ‘Why should we make this change happen?’ can be the greatest motivating factor and its validity goes a long way in determining project success. In defining the problem and developing a solution to it, it is important to involve all those who will be affected by the change. The second step in change management is to develop a shared vision of the proposed change and its implications. The vision should not be confined to lofty ideas, but should be something that can be recognized by employees as achievable. In the third step the change leadership is identified. The change leader is the champion of the cause, who procures resources and takes responsibility of the success or failure of the project. Change leaders share not only a deep belief in change but also good people skills and organizational know how. The fourth step described in the book imparts great practical wisdom to change leaders. It urges us to focus on results, and not just on activities. There is no point in conducting countless meetings or producing document after document if it is not contributing to the advancement of the project. The criteria here should be solid contributions to bottom line performance rather than a mere count of activities. Another important step in dealing with change efforts is to start change at the periphery. Changing the entire organization at once is much difficult and less likely to succeed. In the next step the author also reminds change leaders to ‘institutionalize success through formal policies, systems and structures’ and not to let the hard earned gains slip away by not being proactive. Adjusting strategies in response to new problems in the change process is the seventh step as pointed out in the book. It is not unusual to confront unanticipated problems ion change efforts. A flexible and adaptive approach will help in dealing with the situation. The seven step change management process, as described in the book helps in preparing readers with a structured and organized approach towards change. Nurturing a structured approach towards change is invaluable when stepping into an undefined and almost chaotic state of affairs which characterizes every change effort.

The book’s list of mistakes to avoid in change management can evoke a cynical response at first glance. It makes you think if it is like providing a list of potential risk factors to an experienced project manager. Of course it will be too naïve to follow the list as it is, without anticipating other challenges. The list is not the ‘be- all and end- all’ which we can check mark and seal off. Situations and challenges vary from change project to change project. One advice from the list that draws special attention is not to impose a canned solution developed somewhere else. The book also warns against ‘driving a company wide solution driven from the top’. I find this part very relevant because a beginner can use this advice as a warning against some of the possible pitfalls.

A very good aspect of this book is its concern for social and human factors involved in change scenarios. It gives good practical advice about making change initiatives less painful for the people involved. Change can materialize in any form- a merger, new technology, or a new leader. It can be very stressful for those affected by change, and tremendous support is very much needed and appreciated at these times of crisis. This opens up opportunities for mangers to step in and help in alleviating employee stress. In the same vain, the book also stresses the importance of communication in organizations especially when dealing with change. The discussion about the level of influence managers can have in changing the “here- we -go -again” attitude of employees towards change is also very perceptive. In ensuring a pleasant change experience it is important to consider the impact the change brings to employees as well.

Another great attribute of the book is its excellent use of examples. Rather than just stating dry facts, statistics or theories, it successfully merges core information with relevant and interesting examples, thus making it appealing to the average reader as well. The choice of examples is very appropriate and illuminating. It not only drives home the essentials of change management but also gives a good flavor of different change management efforts. I was particularly impressed by Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition example. How Shackleton managed his team during the time of ultimate crisis is a wonderful example and motivation for change managers. His remarkable change management strategy caused a miracle to happen in a situation where many would have failed. The people on his ship returned home safely after spending 15 months stuck in the ice. The use of this and several other examples illustrate how the book manages to grab reader appeal even when dealing with monotonous change management issues.

Though the book does not really create any point of contention, I slightly disagree with the author for drawing parallels between change and death. In some cultures death is a reason for throwing a party, but in most other cases death inflicts a deep sense of irrecoverable loss. Neither change nor the reaction to it can be fairly compared to death or the emotions it evokes. There are lots of times when people consider change as a welcome gift. Who would not want to see their organization and themselves in a better and successful position? Change can be disruptive, but it cannot be classified as an unwelcome guest all the times. The authors’ intention was not to compare change to death, but the reactions they evoke. I say that the preliminary shock that death gives and a change announcement give is poles apart. The shock that comes as a reaction to change announcements is more like an inertia to move out of complacency rather than a total numbing of senses. Change can be many times positive, even if it is stressful, there are people all excited about change and the opportunities that tides it. I believe ‘organizational madness’ referred to in ‘Charging Back up the Hill’ by Mitchell Lee Marks is a more rightful term to refer to reactions to change efforts.

The idea of continuous change discussed in the book is very insightful. I support the author’s preference to small continuous changes to one big jolt of change. Facts and experience prove that change is something businesses should anticipate and be prepared for, if they don’t want to deal with unhappy crises. Managers can prepare people and organization for small continuous changes. This involves anticipating change and recognizing it as a progress agent. If changes are not implemented regularly it will put us back into complacency mode which is abruptly broken when met with a crisis.

There is a plethora of books on change management, but what makes this book stand out is its exceptional presentation of the subject matter. It compiles the best information on change management in a readable and practical format. Its numerous practical tips interspersed with convincing examples make a very good reading. The book does not claim to make you an expert in change management, but it prepares the readers to deal with change in a better fashion. It is least pretentious in and is not written in an attempt to impress academia. It is an excellent book for beginners, stripped out of all unnecessary complexities, written in a very lucid style, educating you thoroughly about the essentials of change management.

1. Richard Luecke, (2003) Managing Change and Transition: Harvard Business Essentials, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA

2. Mitchell Lee Marks(2002) Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery After Merges, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco, CA


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