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THE PARADIGM PARADOX
'paradigm-shift' programme is a new genre purporting to change organisation culture. As
with other labels (eg. TQM, BPR), we risk lumping many things together which are quite
different. So for the sake of clarity, the paradigm-shift programmes referred to here are
those which are based on the work of Stephen Covey . I describe them as a genre because
already this thinking has taken several forms (in my experience) but Covey's work is the
most common underpinning and is very cogently argued.
This article is being written to give voice to
concerns. In the course of working in organisations over the last few years I have come
upon such programmes, labelled with inspiring titles. As they purport to change the
culture, it is reasonable that they should be scrutinised to learn how and how well they
achieve their purpose. It will not be argued that Covey's work is not of value. It clearly
is. The argument will be that his ideas are wrongly applied to organisations (or applied
at the wrong time).
It is almost as though we learn nothing from our
experience. In the Eighties fortunes were wasted on customer care and quality programmes ,
and it will be argued that paradigm-shift programmes are suffering the same fate.
What does Covey teach?
A paradigm-shift is an "aha", that is
to say, seeing something another way. Covey teaches how to think differently about
yourself (intrapersonal paradigms) and how to think differently about working with others
He argues that the way we see the problem is the
problem. Applying his ideas, people learn that they have freedom to choose, they develop
confidence in being proactive, they learn to begin 'with the end in mind' and hence create
a future they have envisioned. People also learn the value of integrity in working with
others and how to create 'win-win' strategies to improve co-operation. It is a powerful
and empowering technology.
The relevance to organisations wanting a culture
change appears obvious ~ who wouldn't want every employee in the team or whole
organisation contributing powerfully to the future? And so Covey's concepts are written
into programmes of culture change. The argument is that you shouldn't think about changing
people, you should give them the tools and they will change themselves.
Starting with the intrapersonal, people learn to
change by examining their current beliefs and the beliefs held dear by the current
culture. They learn to 'unconceal' (a new word introduced by this genre) or disclose that
which has previously been covert (undiscussed) or, even, undiscussable.
By being clear about what is, people can
achieve breakthroughs, another key word meaning working outside of current
paradigms. That, it is argued, is the key for creativity and inspired action.
Moving to the interpersonal, people learn a new
language for working with others. No longer do you call someone up for a chat about a
problem, you 'make a request' and your request may be 'accepted' or 'declined'. When
things aren't going well, people feel confident to declare a 'breakdown', safe in the
knowledge that like-minded people will be at hand to help.
Sounds great doesn't it? My first experience of
such programmes was in 1989 in an IT organisation. The programme names were up-beat
descriptions for inspired teams and inspired leaders. An analysis of the actions from the
programmes showed that few people were doing things that could be argued to be of
economic benefit to the organisation (ie. affecting revenue, efficiency or customer
Some had started with good intent but their
projects had waned ~ perhaps fought off by the receiving culture. Many, however, had
chosen to do things entirely unrelated to economic performance (eg. leave the company ~
"the event helped me find myself", set up interest groups and so on). Since this
first experience, I have sought out project lists following programmes in other companies
and have found similar results. It is true that some people succeed with initiatives that
prove to be economically worthy. However, initiatives which threaten the current operating
culture are typically resisted to extinction and many initiatives simply bear no relation
to the economic performance of the organisation.
It is also the case that many problems still
existed which had alarming economic consequences and were cultural in origin. For example:
In one company we found eighty million
pounds-worth of potential business not getting bid because it was 'stuck' in the pre-sales
processes. Many of the creative initiatives spawned by the programme ('breakthrough
projects') were sales-related but none dealt with the fundamental problem. Work was not
getting bid. Bad measures were the main cause, creating competition in some instances and
failure to give help in others ("I don't want to help you, it won't help my
In another, as many as 50% of the customers
ringing in with an invoice enquiry abandoned their call. Customers learned to call instead
on the customer services (sales enquiry) line. As many as 40% of the calls coming in to
the sales line were billing queries. These were logged and passed on to invoice enquiries,
taking days to get actioned. Often the customers called again. Once again, it was measures
that were getting in the way. Executives working on functional measures ~ bad debt, sales
volume, call volumes, time to answer calls ~ were oblivious to the problems. Breakthrough
projects which went across these boundaries met with resistance from managers.
These were not isolated problems. They were
examples of general problems in these organisations. Similar costly problems could be
found elsewhere, they existed because of the way managers thought about their work. While
the initiatives appeared to change behaviour, the underlying norms and practices relative
to doing work were not articulated or challenged and it was these that maintained
sub-optimal business performance.
How to do the work is the superordinate
The problem is that the programmes don't talk
about work, how to do work, how to understand work, how to learn from it and how to
If an organisation wants to unleash its
workforce, to create a winning culture, people need to know what to do about the work.
Acting in concert towards a common vision demands that people have a common framework and
language. Covey follows the Western and, particularly American, management view ~ that
organisations are collections of individuals and that culture change means releasing their
potential. It is a view based on the more general belief that performance is an
'individual' phenomenon. Deming taught the opposite. Performance, he said, is more than
ninety per cent governed by the system. If it's thinking that has to change, it is our
thinking about work, about how to run the system that's important.
The systems described in the examples above were
inefficient, not customer friendly and likely to impact revenue adversely. It is the
systems that should have and could have been the focus for people's energies.
Paradigm-shift programmes, like customer care,
quality and BPR programmes are up against the existing culture. At a recent conference,
the presenter was asked, "What were the down sides of her paradigm-shift
programme?". The answers were: People paying lip-service; people at higher levels
feeling threatened and protecting their turf; and experiencing tension living in the gap
between the reality and what some people want it to be. These data suggest that the
programme is being fought by the system.
In an airline, cabin crew were so alarmed by
their 'Breakthrough' programme that, through their staff union, they issued a briefing
paper to all crew on how to survive the programme. It was titled 'Your Brainwashing
Self-defence Kit'. Reading the paper it was clear that cabin crew care about the
operational aspects of their work (eg. having the right meals etc) and had major problems
seeing the connection between what they regarded as a 'therapeutic' intervention and
getting the work done. Two excerpts illustrate:
1. Be present but do not participate. Do not
wear the T-shirt. Do not play the games. Do not hug anyone. Do not tell anyone your
secrets. Do not discuss your emotions. And, most important of all, do not walk out.
If you follow this advice you will almost
certainly be selected for some one-to-one counselling from an unqualified crew member with
staring eyes, fixed smile and nodding head, usually during a meal or coffee break. If you
fail to recognise them visually you will quickly recognise the standard phrases. 'Why did
you feel the need to not participate/rebel. What did it feel like to....' and the old
favourite, 'if you feel you want to talk to someone about this I am available'.
2. And now some key words to use on the
Anything definite and unarguable. Black and
white. Right and wrong. All tangible aspects of the job, peanuts, blankets, newspapers,
delays, anything hard and solid. Basically, when they are being grey and woolly be as
specific and work related as you can and vice versa, when they are talking hard (which is
rare) talk about caring, support and professionalism. Use words like support, which they
love, in reference to physical problems in the job, which they hate. Describe product
shortages as lack of support, this really confuses them.
Similarly, in an IT company, people learned to
'get through' their 'leadership intensive' programme by having pre-prepared
self-disclosure. Managers knew the 'social contract' demanded disclosure and emotional
catharsis. They were also quite realistic about what really governed performance in the
system (ie. the current organisation). People paid lip-service to the programme,
particularly because people were effectively threatened about being negative (to bad-mouth
the programme could bring negative consequences for the manager). In this organisation
'already listening' (a new phrase, meaning listening with prejudice) became a racket in
itself, a game between people with different agendas ~ feelings continued with a different
These problems occur because on the one hand the
programmes are not actually dealing with what's wrong with the system, and on the other
hand people are inhibited from contributing precisely because of the system (the way their
work is defined, the way measures are used, the way functions, processes and roles are
designed). These 'system conditions' are the way they are because of managerial thinking.
For example, most Western managers think of their organisations in functional ways, they
use functional measures to exert control and so on. It is simply the way they have been
trained and socialised.
Managers in 'command and control' cultures
recognise that their traditional paradigm is out of date and perhaps this leads them to
assume that a 'paradigm-shift' programme will provide the remedy. For many people the
effect has been akin to evangelism. Some take the opportunity to try to achieve what they
know is best for the organisation, some accept it blindly, some feel threatened and cope
by building sophisticated defences. It is management thinking that establishes and
maintains the current system and, therefore, the culture. Culture change is not simply
about how you see yourself and others. It is about how the system works, ie. how we do the
work together rather than how we work together. Deming showed that changing the system was
the key to change. The superordinate paradigm change is to understand how to act on the
organisation as a system. Then and only then will behavioural changes sustain an effective
purchase on performance. Only then will the organisation be learning.
Consistent with Covey's approach, the key to
change is to remove or modify aspects of the current operating culture and this has to
start with 'inquiry' and 'unconcealing'. People don't give up their traditional ways of
working unless two conditions are satisfied: They see how current methods produce
sub-optimal results (customer dissatisfaction, inefficiency, lost opportunity), and they
feel confident about doing things differently - they can see how a different approach will
benefit the organisation and its customers. The first condition relies on understanding
the organisation as a system which, in turn, leads to good decisions about what to do
The paradox is that changing a culture starts
with different thinking about the work.
Behavioural logic should be dependent on the
task logic (if it would improve performance to do the work differently, how does it mean
we should behave?). Focusing on behaviour without embedding it in a work context creates
an entirely new pathology - people try to play a new game. By contrast, focusing on how we
work anchors improvement in things that are real and opens the door to working on
behaviour (or culture) in a way which has relevance and, more importantly, is palpably
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