Management Development ForumVolume 2 - No. 1(99)
Non-Directive Change: Leveraging the Collective Intelligence of Organizational Members
Alan T. Belasen
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Non-Directive Change: Leveraging the Collective Intelligence of Organizational Members

Alan T. Belasen

A variety of strategies and methods are available to organizational leaders to leverage the collective intelligence of organizational members as the fundamental strategy for successful implementation of change. With a knowledgeable workforce, managers must shed their traditional responsibilities and patterned behaviors and become coaches and facilitators of empowered individuals and teams. When leading their employees, managers who ask the right questions rather than give the solutions may find it easier to build trust and confidence in employees, establish norms for effective communication, and create a knowledgeable workforce that is loyal and supportive of the change effort.

Introduction: Engaging Every Mind in the Organization

Given the exponential rate of change in the global marketplace, providing leadership and not just authoritative expertise is crucial for the success of organizations. Once a grassroots change in attitudes, behaviors, and habits reaches a critical mass, organizational leadership then can work to realign organizational systems and core capabilities with the business strategy and new organizational direction. The point is that the troops in the periphery must be ready and management practices must be in line with the direction of change before a full scale adaptation can take place. Otherwise, the tension between dynamic units and static management will cause a breakdown in the change process (Beer, Eisenstat, & Spector, 1990). The locus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift to its people. Jack Welch, in evaluating the contribution of his staff to the success of GE transformation into a global force, once reminded his audience that: “The only way to be more competitive was to engage every mind in the organization. You couldn’t have anybody on the sidelines” (as cited in Belasen, 1999, p. 416).

Solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels; all need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions. All too often employees are ambivalent about the efforts and sacrifices required of them: they look to the senior executive to take problems off their shoulders. Effective change can only occur in a nondirective way – top management must specify the parameters for a desired change without insisting on specific solutions (Heifetz & Laurie, 1997). Change involves transformational learning, and top executives do not necessarily have a complete knowledge of the workings of diverse units. Senior managers and top executives can deal more effectively with transformational issues when they create an awareness for the need to change and when they learn from ideas and innovative approaches that come from managers and operators closer to the points of impact.

Encouraging bottom-up initiatives to change that steadily move toward the corporate core and that elicit renewal without imposing it may lead to better implementation. Beer et al. (1990) suggested that change management through corporate revitalization should occur along three important dimensions: (a) interfunctional coordination, (b) commitment, and (c) competency. Coordination among product design, manufacturing, and marketing units is essential for product development opportunities. Commitment to cooperation and teamwork and analytical skills, as well as interpersonal skills, is necessary if individuals working together are to identify and solve problems as a team. If any of these dimensions is missing, maladaptation will result. For example, training alone can enhance competency level, but training cannot change the pattern of coordination within the organization. Trained employees may see their new skills go unused and perceive the training as a waste, undermining their commitment to the change process as a whole.

Once an intervention program collapses, senior managers often propose an alternative. Pressed by daily business problems, senior managers do not have time for change and adaptation processes and often use “one-size-fits-all” interventions that often are isolated, irrelevant, and even inhibit change. Beer et al. highlighted this problem: “Because they are designed to cover everyone and everything, programs end up covering nobody and nothing particularly well. They are so general and standardized that they don’t speak to the day-to-day realities of particular units. Buzzwords like ‘quality’, ‘participation’, ‘excellence’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘leadership’ become a substitute for a detailed understanding of the business” (p. 165). These authors went on to suggest a six-step process to help create a self-reinforcing cycle of commitment, coordination, and competence and achieve task-aligned change across diverse units:

Asking the Right Questions

What does this all mean? How will this change affect managerial style, competency, and even professional development goals? The common theme emerging from this discussion is the need to be adaptive, flexible, and resilient. Managers adopting a participative style in leading their employees may find it easier to build trust and confidence in employees, establish norms for effective communication, and create followership that is loyal and supportive of the change effort. Involving others in decision making that might shape the directions of working relationships and affect the outcomes of work will enhance employee commitment and positively affect productivity. Just as employees are expected to become more involved in shaping work processes and results, so do managers. A manager who knows the secrets of managing by walking around (MBWA) will also be successful in capturing the hearts and minds of employees (Belasen, 1999). Leadership is more effective when asking the right questions rather than providing the solutions to organizational members.

But does all of this diminish the role of management? No, not really – it just changes its focus. Management must transform the way their roles evolve. Managers who can change both cognitively and behaviorally can also adjust quickly and learn how to cope with change and deal with stress while helping others do the same. By fostering personal growth and empowering their employees, managers create opportunities for greater organizational adaptability. While most managers appreciate the importance of human capital in the productivity equation, the effective managers utilize their employees’ strengths, creativity, and innovativeness to the fullest. The manager’s new role in environments of change is to cultivate and maintain a nourishing climate for personal growth. Managers do not have to have the answers – just the right questions and the right attitude.

Frame-Breaking Solutions

Change can be stressful because it involves a move away from a known cognitive and behavioral domain toward an uncertain state of affairs. People tend to avert the risks normally associated with substituting patterned behaviors and current abilities and skills (“comfort zone”) with new competencies and contributions (“untested water”). Drawing on past experiences and intuition, senior managers focus their energies on refining and extending their winning systems. At some point, however, the very same formula that brought success in the past no longer matches the complexity of the problem managers face (Simon, 1957). Standard operating procedures and rules may ultimately limit the ability of the organization to change and adapt more effectively to its environment. Donald Sull (1999) describes the conditions that cause inactive inertia and defensive routines:

All too often organizational leaders tend to be selected or promoted from within. As a result, only certain types of leadership styles and communication patterns that may conform to the decision makers may be chosen. Witherspoon (1997) suggested that such styles may generate little change and, therefore, little effects on organizational outcomes. The following story is a typical management saga in this context:

These organizational leaders tend to protect the status quo by providing satisfactory solutions that are understandable and acceptable but that are not frame-breaking solutions. When these leaders function at a lower organizational level, the impact of their influence and actions is relatively small and usually is contained locally. However, when these leaders are the top executives who direct and lead giant organizations, they also need to be charismatic and have independent thinking. When Percy Barnevik stepped down after eight years as president and CEO of Asea Brown Boveri, he turned the job over to his longtime sidekick Goran Lindahl, who was responsible for the Middle East and North Africa operations. In passing the baton to Lindahl, Barnevik said: “If you want to keep momentum and continuity, it is best to get an internal candidate” (“Percy Barnevik passes the baton,” 1996, p. 66). And Lindahl’s response was no different: “I see no reason to change strategy just because we are changing the CEO” (“Percy Barnevik passes the baton,” 1996, p. 66). To the external observer, this answer may hinge on a drift in favor of incrementalism and continuity. The more serious objective for Lindahl, however, has been to identify the adaptive challenges and frame key questions and issues that brought Barnevik his fame as the ultimate warrior (Belasen, 1999).

Initiating and leading organizational change is a challenge that transcends rational management and that requires paradoxical capabilities and behavioral complexity and competencies that distinguish great leaders from others. The challenges that face top executives are to continue to lead in the midst of discontinuity, to develop biases toward action and adaptive change, and to embrace learning and “relentless consistency,” as Jack Welch has labeled it, to inspire people to achieve peak performance. Effective executives must simultaneously embody the status quo and question it. While top executives who are high-performance leaders are challenged by organizational members and stakeholders to stabilize the system, they are also expected to challenge the existing structural arrangements and patterned behaviors and to ask frame-breaking questions. Senior managers acting as change leaders must have the ability to create and destroy at the same time (Jonas, Fry, & Srivasta, 1990). Effective change leaders envision new directions by rethinking boundaries, finding new meaning, and changing and adapting their behaviors. They constantly seek new ways to improve themselves and others. They are interested in developing competencies to deal with changes and surprises rather than avoid them. Change leaders are proactive learners who are skilled at creating, acquiring, and transferring knowledge, and at modifying their behaviors to reflect new knowledge and insights (Belasen, 1999; Garvin, 1993).

Learning and Change

The learning and development literature emphasizes the importance of double-loop learning and the development of managerial competency to question the underlying assumptions and values of organizational operations. For an organization to learn, it must be able to acquire new knowledge and update its memory with that knowledge. Researchers have long argued that fluid organizational structures increase the capacity of organizations to process more information, acquire greater knowledge, and enhance organizational memory and learning (see, e.g., Galbraith, 1993; Miller, & Friesen, 1982; Nadler, Gerstein, & Shaw, 1992). Thus, what an organization has already stored in its memory affects its ability to absorb and process new information and knowledge.

New knowledge must be codified and disseminated among organizational members to enable learning. Codifying can be done formally through recording knowledge in formal documents and developing standard operating procedures, rules, and policies. In addition, it can be done informally through sharing core values, common beliefs, and stories. Incorporating the new knowledge into routines, regularities, and causal maps should facilitate accessibility to and institutionalization of organizational memory. Causal maps are shared beliefs about the relationships between particular actions taken by individuals, groups, or an organization and the effects of these actions (Robey and Sales, 1994). With direct access to memory and with an implicit understanding of the tangible and intangible costs and benefits associated with using the memory, members can take actions or make decisions flexibly and proactively. Organizational memory helps sustain the common beliefs and culture of the organization through the construction of shared reality and the development of organizational culture. Learning is institutionalized as part of the core values developed and sustained by individuals and groups within the organization (Belasen, 1999).

Organizational memory can be both constraining and expanding. Memory is constraining when it is based primarily on tacit knowledge which is embedded in routines, is unobservable, and consequently is difficult to change. However, while the existing knowledge and memory make it difficult to access recently acquired knowledge, new knowledge is often compared to old knowledge in order to upgrade and expand organizational memory. By retaining the old and the new together, meaningful contrasts can be made, and the organization can become more aware of the process of learning (Robey, & Sales, 1994). Four sources of organizational learning are common, all of which depend critically on communication (Levitt, & March, 1988; West, & Meyer, 1997):

Conclusions: Facilitating Learning and Change

Communication-based learning must be embodied in the thoughts and actions of organizational leaders acting in the role of facilitator. Knowledge management and transference require facilitation competencies and understanding of all facets of organizational behavior, processes, and outputs. In the role of facilitator, organizational leaders must become strategic opportunists, globally aware, and capable of managing highly decentralized systems. In addition, they must be interpersonally competent, sensitive to issues of diversity, and be community builders. How do leaders become proficient facilitators of knowledge and leaning? Jay Conger (1991) suggested patterning leadership training and action learning after the Center for Creative Leadership’s approach. The Center uses art and visualization to expand leaders’ interpretations of the complex dynamics they face. The goal is to encourage leaders to go beyond rational management and move into the exploration of other perspectives and options for situational analysis.

The renewal journey toward a learning organization requires not only a change in managers’ thinking patterns, but also in their behaviors, actions, and performance. Action turns into learning and learning becomes action when leaders initiate transformation processes that are also implemented. As Garvin (1993: 80) rightfully observed – without accompanying changes in the way that work gets done, only the potential for improvement exists.

Recently, Gemini Consulting completed a study involving the top business leaders of more than 50 companies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia-Pacific. The top executives were asked their views about what factors contribute to successful facilitation of transformational learning. Their recommendations, published under the title “Eight Essential Lessons for Change” in Executive Edge (October 1995), are particularly relevant for leaders facilitating and managing the transfer of knowledge within organizations:

Managers are faced with the challenge of learning to relinquish control by obliterating the old values and replacing them with new ones. Drucker (1988) rightfully pointed out that the task of management remains the same, that is to make people capable of joint performance by providing them with vision and direction, structure, and ongoing training. But the very nature of this task changes when management helps to create highly knowledgeable employees. With a knowledgeable workforce, managers must also shed their traditional responsibilities and become coaches and facilitators of empowered teams. They must be on the field and play the role of quarterback. They lead their employees by adopting multiple perspectives and shifting away from the perceptual error that their assumptions and views still have relevance to the environment in which they operate. Effective leaders are less emotional and sensitive to old paradigms and more open to new information, which can ignite and energize the renewal process.


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Alan T. Belasen, Ph.D. is assistant professor of management and organizational communication at Empire State College, State University of New York. He has also taught in the M.B.A. program at Union College, Schenectady, NY and at the University of Albany, State University of New York. Dr. Belasen’s research interests and publications include leadership effectiveness, managerial competency, and learning and development. He is the author of Leading the Learning Organization: Communication and Competencies for Managing Change, published by the State University of New York Press in January, 2000.

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