The Daily Deal, June 1, 2001
Judgment Call Corporate Governance

Monster Mush

by Susan Webber

Consultant's book on managing change misses the mark, offering little in the way of ideas, style, or even entertainment

Devotees of Sun Tsu will doubtless recall how he proved his competence by training concubines in a military drill. Sun Tsu instructed the assembled women carefully, then ordered them to march. They instead fell into gales of laughter. Sun Tsu assumed his instruction was at fault, repeated his directions, but got the same result. He concluded that since the orders were now clear, the problem was discipline. He had the two chief concubines beheaded. After that, the rest performed perfectly.

Unfortunately, neither threats of bodily harm nor "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap's neo-Stalinism are considered good management practice these days. Yet modifying organizational behavior is vital in a merger or turnaround.

It's no secret that most deals fail. While some founder thanks to dubious strategies (recall the Sears Roebuck-Dean Witter "socks and stocks" debacle), more fall short due to poor execution. As a result, change management is a perennially popular topic with consultants, since few companies are skilled at managing mergers or other major discontinuities.

Given how much has already been written, a book on change management must either entertain or provide fresh ideas. Sadly, "The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change" by Boston Consulting Group Inc.'s Jeanie Daniel Duck, does neither very well.

"Change Monster" aspires to give managers a new framework and vocabulary for discussing resistance to major corporate initiatives. The book presents two projects in which BCG was extensively involved:, one a turnaround of a manufacturing division, the other the integration of two R&D units in a cross-border merger. She follows them through their major phases (the Change Curve): stagnation, preparation, implementation, determination, fruition.

Even though "Change Monster" has a few useful observations, it so often gets in its way that it is hard to know where to start with a critique.

A book intended for senior managers opts for the Oprah Winfrey school of writing: personal, chatty, confessional. Duck inserts herself frequently into the narrative, and it backfires.

Do we really need to hear the story of her life, especially in the first chapter? To have virtually every chapter lead off with some homily she learned at her parents' knees? To learn, in long form, about how she rebuilt her life after her divorce? And writing at the sixth grade level, particularly phrases like "the change monster is rudely awakened from its hibernating slumbers and stretches," doesn't help, either.

Duck misses the mark in matters of substance as well as style There is too much narrative and too few ideas. When reviewing, I flag noteworthy sections, and this book got far fewer stickers than any I have read.

She assumes that what she offers in novel, when much of the material is familiar. While Duck regards her Change Curve as an intellectual breakthrough, it is at most a useful organizing device.

She asserts that "it is possible to address emotional data with rigor and rationality," yet her case studies are remarkably short on analysis. She offers only one, admittedly very useful, instrument: BCG's "Ready, Willing, Able" survey which helps define the nature of resistance.

"Change Monster" offers some good pointers, but too many come incidentally, buried among the many anecdotes. And other insights are mentioned in passing, when they merit a longer discussion.

For example, a BCG survey of European community mergers found that differences in business philosophy - such as low cost versus high value added - were more difficult to overcome than differences in nationality, yet little was said about how to surmount this challenge. Similarly, "Change Monster" emphasizes the importance of getting companies to recognize when they are stuck, but finesses the question of how to get them out of denial.

The book does illustrate the extraordinary effort that needs to go into communication. It is easy for the implementation team to get way ahead of the rest of the organization, or worse, to make erroneous assumptions that lead to bad decisions, loss of credibility, and defection of valued employees.

Duck advocates frequent updates, even when there is no apparent news - information about process, how and when decisions are to be made, keeps the rumor mill at bay. Silence leads to paranoia: BCG found at one client that groups that were not mentioned in formal presentations assumed the worst.

Perhaps Duck's excessive familiarity is a subconscious cover for fundamental flaws. Ultimately, "Change Monster" is a tale told by consultants, and the book, by being so BCG-centric undermines its objectivity and relevance. Why does it feature only two projects in depth? Were those the only clients that would agree to be featured? Or were these the only two that were unalloyed successes? Or is it instead that featuring more case studies would show how few, rather than how many, elements they had in common?

It may be that corporate transformations are idiosyncratic, and each has enough unique elements that working through them is heuristic. But no consultant would want to admit that all he had to offer was trial and error.

Yet even Sun Tsu had to experiment to determine how to get his troops to obey.