Strategy & Leadership

Does organizational change progress as in The Hobbit, Hamlet or Game of Thrones?

June 13, 2017

Just as in the literary world, organizational changes are also described as hero tales, or even tragedies. These are however theoretical ideals. In reality, it is just their confrontation and interaction with which they create something special: the adventure.

The HBO series Game of Thrones has been extremely popular for years now. That is quite strange, considering its story structure strongly differs from the usual knight epic. There is no central hero who is followed from the beginning to the glorious end, such as Frodo or Arthur. But on the other hand, neither is there a classic tragedy such as Hamlet, for which the doom-laden bad ending can be noticed from the very beginning. Instead of that, there is a tangle of meandering story lines where ambitions and choices are sometimes successful, but just as often they fail due to opposition and sheer accident. Good and bad have a limited shelf life. No hero is safe, no villain is doomed. Story lines stop abruptly or unexpectedly expand again. Unpredictability reigns. This makes Game of Thrones seem just like real life, which probably also explains part of its popularity.

Deeply rooted differences 

Academic change literature also has two of those extreme story types. They hark back to deeply rooted differences in opinion about the relationship between the individual and the environment. These two story types, which we often encounter in case studies and popular books about organizational change, are of a significantly different tone. We often encounter them in their pure form, sometimes in a mixture. Here I simply call them the hero tales and the tragedies.

The ‘change tales’ are borrowed from the so-called ‘strategic choice theory’ (Child, 1972; 1997). They describe organizations as rational collectives that, through well thought out analyses of their environment and of their own capacities, attempt to design sophisticated strategies and reactions. This enables them to survive in the middle of external threats posed by for instance competitors, innovations or macroeconomic headwind. In these hero tales successful managers are, as leading strategists, the undisputed heroes. They secure their future by smart maneuvering, looking far into the future and anticipating. Change is explained as being a process of smart adaptation. If that is successful, ‘all's well that ends well’, thanks to the great influence and determination (‘agency’) of the hero-managers. In case studies and popular management journals, such heroic change tales are very popular. It is assumed that one can learn a lot from them.

Vulnerable boats

On the other hand, there are also the (classical) ‘change tragedies’, inspired by the ‘population ecology theory’ (Hannan & Freeman, 1977, 1989). In these explanations, organizations are contrastingly represented as vulnerable little boats on the waves of an immeasurable ocean. That ocean represents the wild complex organization environments, which are utterly unpredictable and unmanageable for the ‘small’ organization. Consider the developments in the field of international trade politics, ecology and technology. Boats that happen to have left well-equipped, may have a chance of surviving the storm, they survive by ‘natural selection’: the rest perish miserably. Adaptation and resistance are futile; chance (a high wave or a temporary calm) decides your fate. So in change tragedy studies, we read descriptions of how for instance new technology or innovation has replaced entire industrial sectors (‘creative destruction’) and on the other hand, others have bloomed (drones; robotics). It is - in short - the changing environment and chance that decides what will happen.

However murky this may sound, the processes of real contemporary organizational changes are – just as in Game of Thrones – usually a little bit more complicated. MacKay and Chia (2013) provide a beautiful detailed description of this. They show that around (strategic) change, hero tales and tragedies affect each other profoundly and influence each other in many unpredictable ways. It is not one OR the other: on the contrary, choices (‘hero tales’) and coincidences (‘tragedies’) form a close pair. For instance, a beautiful plan is undermined by a sudden fall in demand. Or the boss unexpectedly dies and the successor throws the strategy out of the window straight away. The new strategy demands a partner who turns out to be particularly innovative, which again leads to new sales markets. The unselected strategy suddenly offers an old competitor a chance – resulting in a headwind on the home market. And so on, and so on.

Unintended side effects 

So chance and luck (from the environment) affect the contents and timing of those well-intentioned choices and actions. And in the reverse, those actions form the environment to which you are exposed. Moreover, every choice or action has unintended side effects that - often with lots of delay - can confront you again later on. Or they even give an unexpected push in the back. So old choices can still chase you for years. Just simply making a choice in itself creates an unintended side effect, namely all the consequences from not making all alternative choices! And those effects occur - once elicited - entirely ‘separately’ from the organization (they are ‘unowned’), but they can influence it again – either directly or indirectly. Every decision or every event gets ‘the water moving’ and so can exert an influence in one form or another elsewhere. Consequently, each ‘choice moment’ does not just have one or two, but a range of possible results. Which of these develop into a reality depends again on incidents, chance, choices and new side effects.

Such a deep ‘process vision’ invites us to see change not as a hero tale, nor as a doomed tragedy, but as something that arises from the influence they have on each other: as an exciting adventure. Whoever wants to undertake an adventure and survival, combines commitment and action with a sharp awareness of the environment and the unexpected affects of personal actions. Only in this way can you work your way through the uncertainty one moment at a time. That applies by the way to organizations and also our personal life. So just as in Game of ThronesValar dohaeris!

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