Kick out the old assumptions about change

‘Change’ is a hot topic, sometimes exciting and engaging, but all too often an issue which leads to disappointment, frustration, uncertainty; even suspicion, fear and resentment.  Concerns may be raised from the direct impact that changes have on people’s work life, but are also often caused by the way change is implemented or the expectations placed on people during the change.

It is rather easy to copy the received wisdom about change and how it should be ‘done’. However it is sensible to challenge many of our assumptions which, whilst perhaps being well-established and apparently plausible, are actually incorrect (Herrero, 2006). We need to take care; if we follow the wrong assumptions, we are likely to make mistakes.

John MacDonald, a leading management practitioner and writer, who sadly died earlier this month, frequently challenged what he saw as ‘Mindless Change’ – where each new fad leaves “another layer of barnacles that in time encrust the organisation and impede progress”. His observations remain relevant in the current climate of change in Higher Education – how do we avoid the crush of ‘initiative overload’?. MacDonald tells us that organisations need to get back to managing the ‘business,’ organically incorporating only those changes and practices that can actually improve their operations.  For us, this means improving value for students.

We shouldn’t view the university as a management machine that is impervious to anything other than a major overhaul. Instead we should see things as a human system: people, the work that we do, the interactions we have with each other, the physical environment that we create and use. These are the routes to change.

Stephen Covey’s famous ‘7 habits of highly effective people’ calls us to think about how we, as individuals, can influence wider change through our own behaviour and choices.

When we consider change, we need to keep in mind the question:

“why are we doing it like this – is there a better way?”


Some helpful sources of reading relating to this blog include:

Covey, S. (1989) 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Shuster, New York, NY.

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK




4 thoughts on “Kick out the old assumptions about change”

  1. Since so many change efforts fail it’s useful to consider how we go about it…looking forward to further dialogue on the principles of effective change.

  2. I think it is fair to say that one enduring feature of successful leaders is that, once something is achieved, it is their FOLLOWERS who say ” we did it ourselves”. I think this observation can be attributed back to Lao Tsu in the 5th Century BC, but as I will happily concede, I have not read any Taoist literature (nor incidentally, the other often quoted reference – Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’), so I am going on heresay.

    The point, however, is still important: people must ‘do’ the change. We are social creatures and conversation is a key tool in how we develop society, ideas, make decisions and engage others in effort. I don’t think it is a coincidence to find that creative, adaptable organisations feature people at all levels who are involved and participate in making things happen.

  3. One leader from history that I particularly respect is Air Chief Marshall Dowding CinC Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. I think Dowding’s key strength was that in the 1930s he envisaged a future air battle, planned towards fighting that battle, provided his forces with the equipment and infrastructure they needed, and then let them get on with it with little or no meddling. It takes a brave leader with utter confidence in his/her forces to take such an approach.

    1. My understanding is that within Fighter Command each ‘battle group’, airstation, squadron and pilot had clarity on the critical success requirements – speed of response, turnaround post mission, limits of their aircraft. This was supported by good information (radar reports on imminent air raids). Beyond that, a huge amount of innovation by ground crews, squadrons and commanders developed strategies that raised the success rate of each intercept mission. Of course the total commitment of crew members was paramount; in some case the very definition of ‘beyond the call of duty’…

      I believe that in more remote locations (e.g. Greece, Palestine etc) RAF squadrons had to be highly independent, to the point of being able to move and relocate their airstrips at a moments notice, which would suggest that the culture of the service was all about responsibility, accountability and innovation. It also enabled scarce resources to be stretched, to perform extremely effectively, punching above their weight.

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