Rx for painless change

Repetitive change syndrome: that sinking feeling afflicting your employees when you or other members of the executive team announce yet another audacious change initiative. According to Eric Abrahamson, a professor at Columbia Business School, repetitive change syndrome runs rampant in organizations.

Abrahamson is the author of Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos, and Employee Burnout (Harvard Business School Press, 2004). His point is that companies need change in order to thrive, but too much change without enough forethought can send an organization spiraling into turmoil.

In organizations suffering from repetitive change syndrome, he writes, “so many waves of initiatives have washed through the organization that hardly anyone knows which change they’re implementing or why.” The result is frustrated, burned-out employees who resist change rather than embrace it.

The problem stems in part from managers’ eagerness to buy into an approach called creative destruction, which encourages organizations to institute large-scale, disruptive changes — essentially breaking down the company in order to build it up again. While Abrahamson admits that creative destruction has its place in certain settings, he suggests that it’s time-consuming, expensive and stressful, and that too many companies blindly pursue it to their detriment.

Instead, he suggests something he calls creative recombination, which involves customizing and reusing resources — people, processes, even computer networks — that an organization already has.

As an example, he points to Westland Helicopters, a division of GKN plc, which, in moving from a military market to a civilian market, nearly drowned in waves of creative destruction. When executives discovered how to recombine existing resources, by reusing product development models and siphoning some knowledge from employees from other divisions, the company was able to achieve the economies of scale it was seeking.

But creative recombination on its own isn’t enough, Abrahamson warns. Even companies that practice it judiciously will not be successful if they don’t understand pacing — when and how often to initiate change.

Here he makes an example of Sears, Roebuck and Co., which began to falter in the late ’80s and early ’90s because of competition from stores such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Kmart Corp. When Sears’s new management instituted a turnaround, the rapid pace of change ended up inflicting greater damage than the competitors. Sears lost the balance between change and stability — and somewhere in that balance is where effective organizational transformation lives.

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