The fetish of change

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

“In today’s increasingly competitive business environment…” Do you sometimes find this piece of copy a bit wearisome? I know I do.

So, I suspect, does Tom Coates judging by a piece he wrote recently about changes at the BBC: is the pace of change really such a shock?. It generated some interesting comments, including a link from Will Davies to The Fetish of Change by Chris Grey. Grey calls this a polemical critique of the current orthodoxy surrounding change, and I must say I found it a fascinating read. I don’t know who Grey is but I assume he is an academic who has chosen to let loose a little; I get the feeling that he has really done his research but the piece is thankfully short of endless attributions to thousands of other academic treatises none of us will ever read.

I enjoy the way he makes explicit, and challenges, some assumptions built into the way many organisations talk about change. I went through it and pulled out a few morsels.

Change is a notion which is drawn upon in a largelyunthinking, but very significant, way so that it takes on an almost magical character. Change is like a totem before which we must prostrate ourselves and in the face of which we are powerless…

In retrospect, the past seems more stable than the present because it is familiar to us, and because we experience the past in a sanitised and rationalised form. Yet, it is possible to point to any number of periods in the past when, for those alive, it must have seemed as if the world was changing in unprecedented and dramatic ways: the collapse of the Roman Empire; the colonisation of the Americas; the Renaissance; the Reformation; the Enlightenment; the Industrial Revolution; the World Wars.

He gives a number of compelling examples of how many people’s lives were far more chaotic in the past than they are today. He continues:

In management and organisational thought,we look from, or through, a number of metaphors which have the effect of legitimating the fetish of change. Perhaps the most longstanding is the mechanistic metaphor of the organization as machine. This, as I will discuss later, licences a vision of the change manager as an engineer. But in terms of the justification of change, the more important metaphor is organismic… This stresses first the idea of the organisation as distinctfrom the environment, and second the necessity of adaptation of the former to the latter… In less abstract terms, this means that as an organisation changes, it contributes to the rationale for change in other organisations, which in turn provides a rationale for change in the original organisation… In short, I am suggesting that organisations collectively generate a ‘treadmill’ of change, which is then seen as a problematic environment to which an organisational response must be made..

He hits top form when he points out the futility of many change processes:

The most striking thing about change management is that it almost always fails. Despite (or, who knows, because of) the reams of worthy academic treatises, the unending stream of self-congratulatory ‘I did it my way’ blather from pensioned-off executives and the veritable textual diarrhoea of self-serving guru handbooks, change remains a mystery. And I do not think that the answer is just around the corner: rather, change management rests upon the conceit that it is possible systematically to control social and organisational relations, a conceit shared by the social sciences in general (Maclntyre, 1981).

Grey challenges the two common excuses for why change processes fail (“it wasn’t implemented right” and “people are too resistant”). He suggests that these are fig leafs to cover deeper flaws in the assumption that what worked in one context can be easily mapped onto another. He also offers a sharp critique of the two common “solutions” to these supposed issues – leadership and consultation. Grey goes on to suggest

By and large people resist change because the change is damaging to them. And damaging not for psychological reasons of fear and uncertainty, but for quite straightforward reasons. I am not much given to economistic explanations but, in this case, they do offer a tempting alternative to psychologistic ones: most change management initiatives entail, at least for some, more work, less pay, or no job. If they did not, they would probably not be resisted.

The way I put it is this: too often, conversations about change treat it as something done to other people at another time; as something that people must be talked into. The reason I enjoy working with processes like Improv and Open Space is that they support a much more emergent notion of change, one that gives participants more initiative. Open Space also works by letting people speak their own truth, providing some kind of sanity check against the kind of gobbledigook of change that Grey challenges here.

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