The paradox of change
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The paradox of change

It is now nearly twenty years since Beer and Nohria (1998) wrote their influential article for the Harvard Business Review entitled “cracking the code of change” in which they stress that the proliferation of approaches to managing change (‘an alphabet soup of initiatives’) has only served to confuse managers’ attempts to successfully manage innovation and change.  As they famously pointed out: “The brutal fact is that about 70 per cent of all change initiatives fail.”  They argue that the bias for action among managers in making change happen, can take a heavy toll on organizations especially in terms of the financial and human cost of failed change initiatives.  The paradox that continuity requires change but that change can also undermine the continuity of competitive business highlights the need for theories that are able to accommodate and make sense of the contradictory and paradoxical nature of change.

In our courses at the University of Aberdeen, we present and discuss a range of different models and frameworks, highlighting how managing change is an uncertain process that often engages change agents in a continual search for systems of regulation and control that will minimise deviations from planned directions and maximise the possibility of pre-planned outcomes being achieved.

Planned unpredictability is the oxymoron of managing change (an oxymoron is a contradictory figure of speech, such as, deafening silence).  On the face of it, the contradictions and incongruities of managing change, in trying to devise a road map to a predefined future that is ultimately unknowable, may raise questions about the value of planning.  For example, how can we plan for the unforeseen, for events and outcomes that have not yet occurred?  But unpredictability does not negate the importance of planning and of being aware that unanticipated issues will arise and need tackling.

From building on our knowledge and understanding of organizational change we can prepare for the difficult task of managing change.  For example, we know that people get anxious over change so we may develop strategies to try and allay these concerns; we know that unforeseen events will happen and hence we may build in some resource flexibility for dealing with these issues when they occur; and we may use past studies to help us identify areas most likely to present the greatest challenges.  But even then, we cannot predict exactly how change will progress, what barriers and problems will emerge and what the final outcomes will be.  But this conundrum of change does not prevent meaningful learning and from our perspective, we suggest that change is best viewed as an ever changing puzzle that warrants continual attention as there is much to be gained from engaging with complex change processes armed with conceptual knowledge and understanding of the theory and practice of organizational change.

Through lectures, readings and case studies, students will be able to develop their skills, insight and understanding, for whilst the future remains ultimately unknowable as F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked: :The mark of an educated person is the capacity to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously without rejecting either.”

Patrick Dawson, Salvesen Chair of Management, University of Aberdeen Business School