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I Can’t Drive 55
Review of ‘Change Without Pain: How managers can overcome initiative overload, organizational chaos and employee burnout’.
Jim Mortensen


In celebration of the 1970s wild life, Sammy Hagar sang, “I can’t drive 55!” – referring to the then maximum legal speed limit in the United States. Hagar’s fixation on fast driving reminds me of the popular consulting mantra – “Change or die!”  Yet, a quick review of change initiatives reveals that rapid change is often the cause of organizational dysfunction.

Change and Die

Eric Abrahamson makes the same claim in his change management book, Change Without Pain. In almost two-thirds of the industries studied, rapid-pace, large-scale change projects decreased corporate survival rates. This flies in the face of the commonly chanted corporate mantra – “change or die.” Abrahamson makes the point that too many times, the actual result is change and die.

Many a professor or consultant made their career by touting the benefits of creative destruction as exemplified by such companies as Enron during the 1990s. Creative destruction is a term popularized by Joseph Schumpeter in the 1970s to describe the process of rapid evolutionary change occurring within companies. Deliberate creative destruction was popularized through such books as Hammer and Champy’s Reengineering the Corporation. Change Without Pain suggests that it would be far more effective to engage in creative recombination.

Repetitive Change Syndrome

The problems arising from creative destruction manifest themselves in what Abrahamson terms repetitive change syndrome (RCS). Symptoms of RCS include: initiative overload, change-related chaos, and employee burn-out.

The first symptom, initiative overload, is seen in organizations that have begun more new change initiatives than an organization can effectively manage. With too many new projects on their plate, employees have little time to focus their attention on customer service and routine operations. Such overload leads to a crisis-management mentality that impedes current work and inhibits the implementation of new initiatives.

The next symptom, change-related chaos, is the disorganization which occurs when the number of changes becomes so great that employees no longer know the purposes for new tasks. They are left without standard operating procedures and must wend their own ways through the resulting confusion.

The third symptom is employee burn-out wherein the workforce becomes resistant towards further change. They begin referring to initiatives as the “new flavor of the month.” Workers hope that by maintaining a low enough profile the newest change initiative will pass by them without disturbing the seas of their work life so much that their own boats are tipped over.

Taken together, these three problems are enough to doom many organizations – employees leave, customers find new providers, and shareholders sell out. Unfortunately, the problems of repetitive change syndrome cannot all be solved with one more change.

Creative Recombination or “Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, Or Do Without”

Abrahamson makes a solid case that the road to recovery is found in creative recombination. Instead of being enticed by the new and flashy, he suggests following the old proverb of “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” – that the key elements to successful change already lie inside the organization. And then, when implementing the new recombinations, as with any good road race, pacing is the key to making it work.

The book draws on the example of GKN plc, a British engineering and manufacturing firm. During the 1980s, GKN had a common industry problem of landing projects and ramping up staffing levels, only to have their clients delay or cancel the project – leaving GKN either overstaffed or having to lay-off their engineering talent. An informal, temporary placement process had been used over the years to contract out these engineers until they were again needed on an in-house project. Doing so spared the employees the trauma of lay-offs while allowing GKN to retain their talented engineering corps and to maintain employee loyalty. In an effort to propagate such a successful survival trait, GKN formalized the short-term contracting-out process and turned it into a fast growing subsidiary called Engage.

Abrahamson pulls three lessons from GKN’s habit of creative recombination. First, recombination (rather than destruction) allows existing process to continue uninterrupted. Second, “small, incremental changes” enabled GKN to actually move faster by avoiding the destabilization inherent in downsizing. And third, because GKN employees were already familiar with the practices and elements of the new business unit, there was much less anxiety and cultural adaptation necessary.

The Knows

So how to recombine? Abrahamson suggests that before the how is answered the whats must be identified. What problems need to be solved or opportunities exploited? What assets and processes are needed to reach the envisioned end state (though Abrahamson doesn’t mention it, this question presupposes that the desired end state has been identified)? What assets and processes does the organization already have in its repertoire?

He lists the following five assets as the recombinants – the ingredients of recombination – that organizations have available to them: people, social networks, culture, processes, and structure. Mapping exercises facilitate the identification of these whats.

Then come the hows. Abrahamson calls these hows action techniques and names three of them: cloning, customizing, and translating. The book gives several examples of each of these for all of the five recombinants, but I’ll provide one of my own to simplify the illustration. Since the central thesis of this book is that reinventing the wheel is a rather inefficient process for organizational progress, let’s go ahead and use the wheel.

Cloning
In cloning the wheel, a manufacturer of first generation skateboards might simply borrow the wheels from a pair of roller skates and be on their way. Different mode of transportation, different device, same wheels. This could be applied to software applications, corporate policies, manufacturing processes, etc. Cloning depends on the “know-what” – in this case, the wheel.

Customizing
But sometimes, the same wheels don’t fit the new terrain. Hence a manufacturer of mountain bikes would need to customize the wheels of a street bike before the bike could leave the Tour de France and join the Paris to Dakar race. The example used in Change was Disney’s cloning of its American theme parks at Euro Disney. Cloning by itself was a failure and Euro Disney was headed down the Chunnel road of financial insolvency. However, in a reasonable time period, Disney executives were able to customize the Euro Disney experience to better reflect European sensibilities and a Disney disaster was avoided. Successful customization also demands having the right knows – “know-when”, “know-how”, and “know-why”.

Translating
The third action technique, translating, requires abandoning the wheel but still retaining the idea of some method for motility, be it tank tracks, cellular cilia, or a hovercraft’s cushion of air. The translation process is more akin to reinventing the wheel. In languages, translating relies on using different sounds (words) to communicate the same meaning. In organizations it may mean different methods to accomplish the same outcome (loyalty, efficiency, name brand recognition) in different markets or product lines. Effective translation depends on unique expertise and therefore depends on another set of knows, e.g. “know-who” or “know-who-knows-who.” Which leads us to the next section of the book.

People

Rather than recapping the entire book in depth, let me review the application of recombination on one of the recombinants. The first recombinant (sounds like bad sci fi) Abrahamson delves into is People, which are central in his map of organizational assets. Peter Drucker once alluded to downsizing as being more a symptom of mismanagement than staffing redundancy. Abrahamson’s chapter title, Redeploying Talent Rather Than Downsizing puts him firmly in-line with Drucker’s philosophy. In support of his argument, the book states a couple of startling statistics. Fewer than half of firms that downsized in the 1980s accomplished the growth targets they were shooting for and their share prices were below industry averages at the end of the decade. Worse yet, in a study of acute care hospitals, institutions that downsized had 200 to 400 percent higher mortality and morbidity rates.

He Was In The Wrong Job And We Were Not Properly Using His Skills
Rather than downsizing, Abrahamson suggests recombining employee talents and strengths with new opportunities to create more effective dynamics. One executive summed it up by saying the following about a department manager, “He was in the wrong job and we were not properly using his skills.” Instead of “creatively destroying” this individual, the executive provided the manager with appropriate coaching and training, and then placed him in a position that leveraged his unique abilities. The manager succeeded in establishing a critical new business line for the company. In addition to retaining this employee’s loyalty, corporate knowledge, and specific job skills, the corporation also avoided the costs of severance pay, potential law suits, recruiting, orientation, and training of an untested manager for the new position. The book uses a mapping technique for people to identify those skills and traits that can be recombined.

For each of the recombination elements, including People, Abrahamson gives various examples of applying the three action techniques of cloning, customizing, and translating. He also provides examples of how to apply new approaches and technologies in support of creative recombination.

Change Without Pain follows a similar format with the remaining four recombinants: social networks, culture, processes, and structure. Abrahamson walks the reader through a mapping exercise, discusses various techniques for finding reusable strengths within the organization, and then suggests methods for cloning, customizing, or translating. The concepts are well-illustrated by a number of true stories show both how not to do it, as well as how to do it right.

Pacing – A Period of Pause

The final section of Change Without Pain encourages appropriately pacing the rate of recombination and change. Change needs to be followed by periods of consolidation and well-managed stability. This gives change initiatives time to take root and employees’ time to absorb and adjust to the new recombinations. Abrahamson suggests that sometimes slowing down actually moves a changing entity forward faster. This is due to the scarcity of “change capital.” Organizations in too much flux, spend their change capital faster than they can accumulate it, causing small dysfunctions to pile up faster than they can be resolved.

Dislikes, Likes, and Recommendation

My likes outweighed the dislikes, but there were some areas that might be strengthened.  I found the recycling of common case studies, such as 3M’s Post It Notes, a bit tiresome. On the other hand, it was interesting to see some of these case studies from a new recombinant perspective. The two major drawbacks were the lack of step-by-step guidance for the less-than-expert change manager, and the lack of a judgment system for evaluating the direction of change. Without step-by-step guidance or a specific list of questions, the change facilitator could easily find themselves bogged down in the mapping activities. Additionally, the lack of emphasis on effective methods for determining the right strategic direction for the change effort might mean that a great tool gets applied to the wrong situation. Even the most smoothly running race car has the flight characteristics of poultry when headed over a cliff.

My “likes list” is quite a bit more extensive. At the top of the list is the author’s humility – his admission that his methodology isn’t the only successful approach. Abrahamson quickly notes – and reiterates throughout – that sometimes creative destruction is necessary, and that change often requires pain. The honesty lends a quick credibility to his recommendations.

In the spirit of open disclosure – I’m a big fan of using things that work, of taking a solutions-focused approach to change. Change Without Pain is a collection of stories that could have been taken right out of the annals of solution-focused practice. In the spirit of Keep It Simple Stupid - creative recombination is a method that works by using methods that work. Abrahamson’s action techniques are simple and replicable. His model puts people at the center of change efforts and duly recognizes that people, like even the strongest metals, can only be stressed so much before they fatigue and fail.

The book’s mapping techniques provide useful tools for visualizing the recombinants that can be cloned, customized or translated. And the follow-up discussion provides useful stories for illustrative purposes. I do wish there had been summary checklists for each method or technique, but that’s my own preference for bullet points.

In conclusion, I give Eric Abrahamson’s Change Without Pain 4½ stars (out of five) for experienced change professionals and 3½ stars for the beginner.

Jim Mortensen is a corporate change consultant and lecturer on management issues. His professional experience includes teaching graduate courses on analysis and management for Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management,  and project management for the senior levels of the US federal government and Fortune 500 companies. Jim’s consulting work focuses on bringing a positive, solutions-focus to strategic planning, organizational development, and change management.


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