Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Constraints In Organizational Change

I’ve been thinking about the discussion topics I’ve seen lately in my organizational development LinkedIn groups – what movie would you show the CEO, where’s the best place in the organization for OD to live, is creativity more important than production, etc. They make nice cocktail party conversations, but I have to wonder “where’s the beef?”

To understand what I mean, you have to first ask yourself the three basic questions posed at the end of The Goal, Eli Goldratt’s 1984 masterpiece dramatizing his theory of constraints: what do you want to change, what do you want to change it to, and how will you do it?

What do you want to change?
In OD projects an executive sponsor wants to change “the way things are done around here” as a strategy to respond to a serious persistent problem.

What do you want to change it to?
The sponsor wants the organization to exhibit more of certain qualities (like being responsive or innovative) that are deemed essential to the problem’s resolution.

How do you do it?
The OD discipline supplies a thousand techniques, with pedigrees as fine as Harvard B-school and as crude as “it’s worked for me for forty years”.

You could write a pretty good-looking proposal by picking some tools and fleshing out the above with your project's details, and you could probably get funded. But the project isn’t going to succeed unless you also embrace the key insight of Goldratt’s theory of constraints, which I’ll paraphrase for organizational development:
To be successful, a change initiative must identify and subordinate itself to its fundamental limiting constraint.
To that I would add my observation that:
The limiting constraint in a change initiative is the belief system of the person in the organization who holds the real power.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be. As a change initiative touches more and more of an organization (and it will!), its disruption eventually works its way to the top of the power pyramid (which is not necessarily the top of the organizational hierarchy). The support or opposition of the person occupying that role determines the initiative’s success.

Considering all the failed organizational change initiatives, all the money and time that has been wasted on them, and all the frustration we all have endured as participants, it would seem wise to spend more effort identifying, appreciating, and addressing an initiative’s limiting constraint as the first order of business.

Here is my simplified process for doing that:
  1. Find out who holds the real power in the organization
  2. Assess the limits of their support or opposition to the change initiative
  3. Subordinate the initiative to those limits
What does it mean to subordinate a change initiative to limits? Here’s an example:

The chief operating officer of a local power company wanted to drive decision-making down into the working teams and departments so the company could become more nimble in adapting to changes in power technology, regulations, and market practices. Change management staff and consultants were hired, and millions of dollars were spent, but the initiative has made little real progress after two years.

The reason is that the chairman of the board doesn’t believe important decisions should be left to anyone he doesn’t know personally. This is the limiting constraint. As a result, though authority for tactical decisions has been driven down the organizational hierarchy, strategy and operational control continue to be jealously guarded at the top. And that is where they will stay until the change initiative figures out how to subordinate itself to the constraint of the chairman’s limiting beliefs.

Had this constraint been identified two years ago, a subordination strategy could have been developed then. For example, it might have been productive to initiate a regular luncheon where, each week or each month, the chairman would sit down with a small number of key middle managers and get to know each other. Had that been done, the chairman might have soon become willing to give more authority to them, because he would have come to know each of them personally. His limiting beliefs would have become a support to the initiative rather than an obstacle – that is how Goldratt’s concept of subordination works.

I doubt you’ll find a “luncheon with managers” tool in your OD professional’s toolkit, and you probably won’t see it as a topic in an online discussion group. It is effective because it emerged from sound principles, not from our little black doctor’s bag. I strongly believe that we trust our tools and techniques too much, and our sound principles too little.

And the funny thing about the luncheon strategy is that it does more than support the COO’s change initiative. It also has the potential to set in motion a wider change process that may keep on giving. That’s because there’s a pretty good chance the chairman’s luncheons would increase his trust in the caliber of managers his company produces, thereby shifting his limiting beliefs. Alternatively, he might learn that the company needed a better caliber of managers, and might take steps to begin a process of improvement that expanded the change initiative in a direction it didn’t even know it needed to go.

So next time you contribute to one of those provocative OD discussion topics about clever tools and techniques, please remember that in doing so you are only dancing around the fire pit. There is a fundamental limiting constraint in each of your change projects, and you won’t get the results you want until you engage with it fully.

Dancing around the flames may be fun, but to really have an impact, you’ll have to jump in.