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Volume 1, Issue 32;   August 8, 2001: Don't Rebuild the Chrysler Building

Don't Rebuild the Chrysler Building

by

When we undertake change, we're usually surprised at the effort and cost required. Much of this effort and cost is necessary because of the nature of the processes we're changing. What can we do differently to make change easier in the future?

In 1929, the automotive industry was as hot as the Internet was in the 90's. The people who led the major companies then were as well known as Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are today. One of them was Walter Chrysler, who wanted to build the tallest building in the world, to be named — of course — the Chrysler Building. He found himself in a race with The Bank of Manhattan Trust Company, and he won.

Willis Tower, Chicago

Willis Tower, Chicago, formerly the Sears Tower. Photographer: Carol M. Highsmith, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

The Chrysler Building, at a respectable height of 1,046 feet, won't stand forever. But nobody has ever deconstructed a skyscraper that tall, and we don't have any idea how to do it.

One thing is certain: the cost will be (ahem) sky-high. Since we've given so little thought to minimizing "deconstruction" cost, we now have an installed base of buildings that are stable and safe, but expensive to demolish.

So it is with organizational processes. We've designed them to effect management control — to ensure that people follow procedures and to enable management to control cost and quality. But they weren't designed for change, and that's one reason why change is so difficult.

How do organizational processes defend themselves against change? Here are three things to do to design processes that are easier to change.

Break the performance connection
We often tie performance evaluation to proficiency in organizational processes, which ties career advancement — and self-esteem — to a detailed knowledge of organizational processes. Once self-esteem is tied to the status quo, changing the status quo can create a threat to self-esteem. No wonder we have trouble.
Tie performance to the ability to adapt to changing processes, rather than to skill in following processes of long standing. Reward flexibility, not compliance.
Keep interfaces compact
Most organizational processes
weren't designed for change,
and that's one reason
why change is so difficult
Processes have interfaces consisting of forms, contacts, documentation, and so on. To use a process, people interact with it through its interface. When the interface is complex and diffuse, and linked to many other processes, we have more difficulty changing the process.
Make process interfaces compact. To avoid reconfiguring the rest of the company when you change a process, keep as much of the process as possible behind the interface.
Eliminate gatekeepers
A gatekeeper is someone whose signature you need. For example, most organizations require a supervisor's signature for certain purchases, or for time cards. Some gatekeepers exist because of legal requirements, but many are created for political reasons. Since being a gatekeeper is often a badge of status, gatekeepers tend to resist attempts the change the processes they gate-keep.
Avoid creating new gatekeepers. Empower staff to simply sign the forms themselves.

Once you master these techniques, you can move on to a bigger project — to learning how not to rebuild the Empire State Building. Go to top Top  Next issue: When All Your Options Are Bad  Next Issue

For more information about the Chrysler Building, visit the PBS Web site.

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

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More articles on Organizational Change:

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Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
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U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond OdiernoWhen Change Is Hard: Part I
Sometimes changing organizations goes smoothly. More often, it doesn't. Whatever methodology we use — and there are many methodologies available — difficulties can arise. When change is hard, what's happening? What makes change hard?
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When we investigate what went wrong, we sometimes encounter obstacles. Interviewing witnesses and participants doesn't always uncover the reasons why. What are these obstacles?
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyThe Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

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