When I talk to organisations with a long history of unsuccessful change implementation, I realise very quickly that there are no easy answers. Formulaic, ready made, solutions just don't cut it and there may be organisational change issues that are simply to profound and to difficult to handle.
It's all been tried before and as a result there is a lot of world weary cynicism - 'we are tired of change, tired of trying'. The weariness can pervade the whole organisation from top to bottom. These companies have employed the smartest people they can find to try and crack the problem of change, but it just doesn't seem to work.
I am starting to wonder if there is a hidden barrier to change that has something to do with the essential nature of corporate hierarchy: With the way in which power dynamics and hierarchical relationships distort organisational focus.
John Kotter, in his classic book 'Leading 'Change', writes about creating a guiding coalition. Such a coalition can help 'develop the right vision, communicate it to large numbers of people, eliminate...key obstacles, generate short term wins, lead and manage dozens of change projects, and anchor new approaches deep in the organisations culture'.
This powerful concept has been picked up by many companies who interpret it's message as a need to focus their energy on engaging senior managers; securing 'buy in' and 'commitment' and demonstrable leadership. These managers will happily pay lip service to the new initiative and they are, of course, delighted to be invited to join the guiding coalition. But this is because it serves their hidden agenda, in reality their overarching interest is personal status, their position in the hierarchy.
Professor Kotter identifies this problem very precisely. He says, 'When trust is present, you will usually be able to create teamwork. When it is missing, you won't'. You can't have trust when there is a hidden agenda.
These managers don't want to make any wrong moves, they are risk averse. They are concerned with preserving their powerbase. They are distinguished by their adherence to the behaviour patterns that 'got them where they are today'. They will agree a grand strategy if they can see that it serves their interests and they will support it just as long as it continues to do so. In reality, they don't trust anybody. They tend to be secretive and they resist any move to transparency (always a 'joy' when you are working with them as a communications professional). And they effectively 'contaminate' those in their sphere, especially the people they manage.
But they are not necessarily 'bad guys'. This behaviour is forced on them by the essential nature of the 'pecking order' in organisational hierarchy. It is arguably the biggest obstacle to change and it is endemic in the way we run our businesses.
So it seems to me that the key to unlocking this perpetual cycle of self interest is to find ways to establish trust and a shared purpose with common sense and decency. Build engagement and work to the principle that achieving successful change means achieving success for all. But first, and most important of all, identify the behaviour for what it is, surface the resistance and confront it openly and honestly.