When I was an in house facilitator at a major corporation, I often ran into skepticism about new initiatives, especially those that involved a change in “how we do things around here”. The closer to the line I got the more likely I was to hear skepticism about the “flavor of the month”. What people expressed was the belief that no matter how positive a particular initiative seemed at first, that within six months we would be back to doing things the “old way”. Sometimes folks were willing to give it another try, sometimes not. I’ve heard the same thing from people in many other companies, so I don’t think it was unique to us.
Over the past several years I’ve been reading and trying to practice material from the works of Chris Argyris and Donald Schon, who I think may have a handle on at least a part of the reason why even well designed initiatives could end up as flavor of the month candidates. Their theory has to do with the persistence of what they see as defensive ways of reacting to stress, embarrassment or perceived threat that are so ingrained through socialization that we act on them unconsciously, and so quickly that we ordinarily are not even aware of what we are doing. They believe that these ways of reacting are then included in organizational defensive routines where everyone agrees to go along with being defensive, acts as if the defensiveness weren’t happening and covers up all this.
If true, these defensive ways of reacting, I believe, can prevent the success of a change initiative in at least two places in the cycle. One is when the initiative is being introduced. If the changes are stressful enough, they may get “renegotiated” in such a way as to relieve the short term stress but blunt the desired changes. If the initial change goes well, then the stress of future problems may reinforce the use of the old routines and again make the desired changes disappear.
One place Chris Argyris puts forward his ideas, and how he came to them, is in his book On Organizational Learning, Second Edition. If he is right, then there are important gaps in many of the otherwise excellent initiatives we participate in that will result in our clients not experiencing successful change over the long run, or in them being able to solve the presenting problem, but not learning how to uncover future ones. I think this raises challenging questions for us, because I want to help my clients bring about lasting change, and to develop new skills that obviate their need for my future services.
I wonder what other facilitators think about this. Roger Schwarz, who wrote the book The Skilled Facilitator, bases his nine ground rules and training methods at least in part on this work. What about you? Do you see a problem in how long changes in organizations you work with last? Do you believe there is such a thing as a “flavor of the month” syndrome? If so, what do you see as the main factors that give rise to it? Later I will write about what I see as implications for our work that challenges our most cherished beliefs about ourselves. Until then, what do you think?
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