Book value

Nothing's going to be different unless your employees buy in

  • The Change Monster, by Jeanie Daniel Duck (Crown, May 2001)
  • Slack, by Tom DeMarco (Broadway Books, May 2001)
  • Biz Dev 3.0, by Brad Keywell (ALM Publishing, June 2001)
  • Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracy (Berrett-Koehler, May 2001)

Apparently, the first thing consultants are taught in infancy is how to prepare a PowerPoint presentation. And hundreds of thousands of corporate managers can be forgiven if they believe that the slide that the would-be gurus love best contains some variation of this message: "There is nothing constant but change." After all, trying to make the obvious sound profound is one way for consultants to justify all those billable hours.

But what many consultants -- and their senior partners -- miss (at worst) and gloss over (at best) is that there is more to transforming an organization than determining what its new direction should be and deciding how to get from here to there.

The people who work in those organizations have to believe in what you're trying to accomplish as you push off in a new direction -- a fact you ignore at your peril. As anyone who has actually run a company can tell you, employees are incredibly resourceful when it comes to sabotaging -- either deliberately or indirectly -- even the best-laid change initiatives. And that's true whether you're talking about an effort as small as a new project or as large as a merger and acquisition.

Well, let's give the consultants some credit. The subtitle of Jeanie Daniel Duck's new book makes it clear that at least one of them has a clue. She called her book The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change.

Duck, a senior vice-president at the Boston Consulting Group, contends there are three equal parts to any corporate transformation. They are strategy ("a passionate belief in where you are going"), execution ("good basic management"), and change management (which "requires a heightened sensitivity to the emotional and behavioral issues inherent during change").

Duck then goes on to list the five steps involved in the change process, which she cites as stagnation, preparation for change, implementation, determination to carry through with the change, and fruition. She says that managers should deal with employees' feelings and concerns at each of the five stages. However, you can stop right there, since the rest of the book doesn't really help you understand how to do that. The book's value is in its attempt to raise a red flag: if you want to change your organization, you're going to have to explain your motivation to your employees -- and you're going to have to do it repeatedly and in detail.

Of course, implicit in Duck's thesis is the idea that your organization has the ability to change in the first place. And that simply may not be true, contends consultant Tom DeMarco.

In Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, DeMarco maintains that managers have "overimproved" their organizations to the point where the operations are at least disciplined if not thoroughly efficient. The problem with discipline, DeMarco says, is that by making the organization as streamlined as possible, you make it difficult to change direction. All your resources are already committed -- which makes change extremely disruptive, if it's possible at all.

DeMarco's solution is contained in his one-word title. He calls for the creation of slack in organizational controls so that people are free to do their work in the way they think they should. And he recommends giving employees enough slack (in the traditional sense) that they have the freedom to actually think about what needs to be done.

You'd be hard-pressed today to find a senior manager who would disagree with his first point. As for his second one, DeMarco, to his credit, understands that giving people less work to do is counterintuitive. To buttress his argument he makes the case that there are three primary benefits to creating some downtime for knowledge workers (the only part of the workforce he's concerned with). First, he contends that it's easier for an organization to change if there's slack built in. Second, employee retention should go up if people don't feel that they're constantly being pushed to the point of burnout. And third, having some slack gives organizations more time to devote to training, or what DeMarco refers to as "an investment in human capital."

All that, in theory, should leave employees free to improve the organization. And to guide that process, managers can do far worse than to look at Biz Dev 3.0: Changing Business As We Know It. Brad Keywell's book is perhaps the first definitive attempt to analyze the ways in which Internet companies have approached business development.

As the wreckage on the Nasdaq has shown, dot-coms have done thousands of things wrong. But one thing that most of them have gotten right has been developing the concept of forming partnerships with other companies to grow faster and serve more customers. What has worked well on the Net can work for all companies, Keywell says, and he lays out a step-by-step process companies can follow to set up partnerships with other businesses. Although his breathless tone and overuse of exclamation points can wear a bit thin, his ideas are solid.

It's possible, of course, that if employees are given a bit more free time, they may inadvertently waste it. Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time is the latest on the endless list of time-management books that are aimed at making sure that the reader doesn't waste a single second. The title is a metaphor referring to the hardest, most important thing you need to get done today. According to author Brian Tracy, you should do the most difficult thing first; that makes the rest of the day easy by comparison. Tracy covers all the commonsense basics, although he falls into the trap of citing "facts" that he never backs up. (For instance, without a shred of evidence he claims that most people work at 110% to 130% of their capacity.) At least he's unassailable on the fundamentals: You're never going to get everything done, so accept that as a given. Concentrate on the most important tasks.

Who knows? You might actually get more done and create the slack you need to change your organization for the better.

Paul B. Brown is the author or coauthor of 10 books and editor-in-chief of

Executive Reader

Daniel J. Weinfurter
Founder and president of Parson Group LLC, a Chicago-based professional-services consulting firm (the #1 company on last year's Inc. 500)

Recent fave
When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management, by Roger Lowenstein. The book, which tells the story of the spectacular success and eventual demise of the famed bond-trading hedge fund of the 1990s called Long-Term Capital Management, "has lessons for any business," says Weinfurter. One of them is that "no one is brilliant all the time, even Ph.D.'s from Harvard and Wharton." And another: "There is a constant need in every business to reexamine strategy to ensure it is still relevant and defensible," he says.

A nonbusiness book with business lessons
Billy Budd, by Herman Melville. Weinfurter finds that this classic, which is set in 1797, after a series of mutinies in the British navy, poses the question "How do you lead today?" Asks Weinfurter, "Do you follow the letter of the law, or do you let circumstances dictate what the outcome should be?" --Rifka Rosenwein

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