The fetish of change

“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.


8 thoughts on “The fetish of change

  1. Mike


    Thanks for pointing out this gem! Grey appears to be the Nick Carr of Organizational Change Management. He’s right that most OCM efforts are doomed to failure from the start, but I cannot agree with his statement that,

    “The implication of the issues I have outlined, ultimately, is that the whole business of change management should be given up on.”

    Just because bad things can happen to good concepts, that doesn’t mean that they necessarily must happen. I’ll follow Annette’s lead and elaborate over at my place.

  2. Graham Hill

    Grey is an academic at the Judge Business School in Cambridge. From his published CV it would appear that unlike many of the academics, executives and consultants that he casually lambasts, he has never actually participated in a large-scale organisational change programme.

    You can draw your own conclusions whether Grey has any credibility as a commentator on matters to do with change.

    Managed change is difficult in large organisations. Much of this is due to the fact that change is imposed from above and then managed in a linear, mechanistic way, although organisations themselves are more than the sum of their parts and work tends to get done in a non-linear, dynamic, networked sort of way.

    People are largely driven by non-conscious emotions and imposed change creates these in droves. Many of them are negative and get in the way of the change itself. It should be no suprise that some of the models of change are derived from extreme life events, of which large-scale organisational change is itself an example.

    But there are many successful examples of large-scale change, e.g. British Airways just prior to being privatised. Most of them have common themes such as a burning need to change or a strong vision, open communication, deep staff involvement (you might even say co-creation), experiential training, long-term post-change support and yes, active leadership, just to list a few.

    Pretending that we can dispense with managed change in large organisations is not realistic. The question we should be asking is how we manage the change process effectively, not if we should do it.

    Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Graham Hill

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Hi Graham, I’m with you on not throwing out babies with bathwater, and separating them is not easy. Thanks for bringing a pushback into the discussion so this doesn’t become a mutual appreciation society.

    I don’t think the choice is between changing and not changing. What I like about Grey’s article is that it interrupts what I see is a prevailing discourse that implies change can be imposed following certain rules, and a common assumption that what worked in one area will automatically work in a different context.

    Yes, there are examples of organisations that have changed for the better in response to drives from above. But on the other hand, to take your example of BA, some of their managed change has been less inspiring – for example the tailfin saga and arguably some of the changes wrought under Robert Ayling.

    Annette Clancy had some very interesting things to say about this and I’ve included them in a subsequent post here.

    You imply that Grey has no credibility, because he may not have been involved in a corporate change programme. Whether he has been so involved I don’t know. One could describe non-involvement as conferring on him more credibility rather than less if one wished to label him as objective.

    Either way, I find him credible not on the basis of his experience but on the clarity of his arguments.

    Plus I think it’s important to note that he describes his work as a polemic, which I take to mean he knows he is being rhetorical and we might not wish to interpret every sentence too literally.

    I wonder if you would be willing to apply the baby/bathwater principle to Grey’s work and not reject all of it because you question some aspect of his authority?

    I have sometimes met people who have repeated experiences from which it’s not always clear they learn useful lessons. And in marketing I’ve often met people whose experience turns out to be… exaggerated.

    I try to give more weight to those whose arguments impress me rather than trusting their supposed experience. Margaret Thatcher had many years of experience of government when she introduced the poll tax.

  4. Graham Hill

    Hi Johnnie

    Having re-read Grey’s article, I still find myself at odds with many aspects of the tone and tenor of his position.

    But I do agree with his suggestion that the linear, mechanistic way in which managers look upon management in general and change management in particular is a large part of the problem and probably only a small part of the solution.

    The front-line in thinking about change in organisations is probably the recognition that organisations are complex adaptive systems that display fractal-like behaviour at different levels. The complex adaptive behaviour that markets exhibit is replicated to a degree on a finer scale in the individual organisations within them. Ditto for work groups within organisations, and for the individuals within work groups. Only by looking at the individual agents in each of the layers and their interactions can we hope to crudely understand how they get work done and how new ways of getting new work done might emerge when we push them into changing through some sort of organised change programme.

    (Take a look at Ralph Stacey and others’ writings in the excellent “Complexity & Emergence in Organisations” book series published by Routledge – – if you want to know more.)

    But this doesn’t make organised change a hopeless pursuit. On the contrary, there are a number of common patterns of behaviour or themes that successful change programme exhibit, such as a burning need to change or a strong vision, open communication, deep staff involvement (you might even say co-creation), experiential training, long-term post-change support and yes, active leadership, as mentioned previously.

    And I remain suspicious of those who (apparently) have never been a part of the messy business that change is. Particularly when they purposefully do not provide much light to go with their rhetorical thunder. It is all too easy to criticise heroic change theory without having had to farm change through to success yourself.

    This is a long overdue discussion of what makes change tick and stick. Thanks for bring it up.

  5. Matt Moore

    Hello – this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend recently. For years she worked as an ERP consultant. Then she got a back office job – which involved several traumatic experiences of (badly managed) change. She said to me: “For years, I inflicted change on people, and now it’s happening to me, I don’t really like it that much.”


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