How much pain is enough?

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 1 December 2004



(2004), "How much pain is enough?", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 25 No. 6.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

How much pain is enough?

Mike KippMike Kipp manages a strategic leadership advisory service that works with executives and governing boards who want to "write the next chapter" for their organization or themselves (

Change without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos and Employee Burnout

Eric AbrahamsonPublished by Harvard Business Press

"If you want to understand something, try to change it ..." (Kurt Lewin).

It has been said that management is perspective – about people, organizations, problems and opportunities, but above all perspective about change: how much is needed; how it occurs, what it costs and whether it can be led. Eric Abrahamson compellingly advances the belief that management can indeed lead change without the suffering we so often associate with major corporate transitions in his book, Change Without Pain: How Managers can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos and Employee Burnout. I don't believe it for a minute but I loved the debate.

Abrahamson's basic argument is that the "creative destruction" school of thought has had its way with us for far too long; that parts of "the present" – people, networks, culture, processes and structures – can always be adaptively recombined to create a preferred future, like building high performance cars out of salvageable parts.

Abrahamson artfully prosecutes the case for this type of change and there is much in his argument to warrant broad readership, including the many provocative models, the critique of reengineering, the grounded examples and the argument for a change strategy that goes beyond the "shock and awe" brand of "rolling thunder" that has characterized so many improvement initiatives. One of the cleverest resources is the companion, a simple but ingenious publishing device for boosting sales and accelerating the book's "reach and richness," as Evans and Wurster would put it, in the process. The site carries downloadable tools referenced in the book for value charting, social network graphing, people mapping and organizational analysis, suggesting the possibility of a portal offering "content, commerce and community" around organizational change. Who knew? The "speedometer" on the pace of change is particularly interesting, reminiscent of the Holmes/Rahe scale that attributes "points" to such personal events as a move, a job shift or the death of a spouse. This would be even more useful if there were a companion meter on the velocity of change in the market.

The book also poses great questions that any manager interested in reframing a thankless situation ought to be asking. Case in point: "what kind of problem could I solve if I leveraged these [values] rather than destroying them?" In Abrahamson's treatment, such questions have more than theoretical gravity. His description of the turnaround at Continental White Cap, a division of Continental Can, stands out in my mind as the "poster child" of recombination. White Cap was a long-standing producer of closures for such customers as H.J. Heinz, complacent from success and asleep to market shifts and the material preferences of the packaged foods industry. Abrahamson describes how Peter Browning leveraged the misplaced talent, social networks and stranded assets to rejuvenate the division. He operated under a commitment to retain the strong values of company loyalty, the union-free posture on the workforce and the reputation for integrity among its customers. This case is a reminder that successful change is seldom a "from – to" revolution. More accurately, it must be seen as the intersection of three circles in a Venn diagram – continuity, novelty and transition – representing what stays, what's in play and what's in store for the future. Leadership diminishes any of these three at its peril.

Abrahamson provides a number of examples of the kind of evolutionary change that keeps pace with an evolving market as well as refreshing wisdom from practitioners of change. After nearly three decades of lionizing "Neutron Jack" and "Chainsaw Al," it is refreshing to hear Peter Brabeck of Nestlé suggest that "dramatic change is fine for a crisis. If a turnaround is necessary, then have a revolution. But not every company in the world is in crisis all the time. Frankly, any one-time change is a worrisome warning." Indeed, revolutions are often an inappropriate response that says more about the revolutionary than the context.

Clearly, in this managerial culture of disposability, the case for appreciating and applying what is good can never be overemphasized. David Isenberg and others at AT&T generated a cult following by "hermit crabbing" position papers on the future of telephony into the abandoned "shells" of Bell Lab reports. And Abrahamson rightly points out that John Reed systematically destroyed institutional memory in the "reinvention" of Citibank.

Unfortunately, the "glue" for Abrahamson's abundant material is a recombinant idea of questionable robustness to take on Kurt Lewin, Dick Beckard, George Land, Edgar Schein, John Kotter, David Hanna, Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan, to say nothing of the countless managers who have tried to minimize collateral damage carrying out a fundamental repositioning.

In my experience, the price of the future is always the present, sacrifices for the greater good; "that was then – this is now" and all that. And while reorganization announcements are seldom greeted with the popping of corks, "all organizations are perfectly designed to achieve the results they are getting." You may encourage the values of information sharing and collaboration, but it is organization design that drives cross-selling. And the "personal shopper" is able to break departmental lines and commission structures in pursuit of the perfect ensemble on the strength of infrastructure, not culture or strategy.

We want change without pain for the same reason that we expect excellence and accept mediocrity: we value civility, dignity and continuity. Against this backdrop, Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan offer a disturbing but provocative counterbalance in Creative Destruction: Why Companies that are Built to Last Underperform the Market – and How to Successfully Transform Them. "We believe that corporations must be redesigned from top to bottom on the assumption of discontinuity. Management must stimulate the rate of creative destruction through the generation or acquisition of new firms and the elimination of marginal performers." Organizations are led and populated by people with values, fears and defenses. "Markets, lacking culture, leadership and emotion, do not experience bursts of hope or desperation. Redesigning the corporation to evolve quickly rather than operate well requires more than simple adjustments; the fundamental concepts of operational excellence are inappropriate for a corporation seeking to evolve at the pace and scale of the market."

Whatever your starting perspective, the debate is an important one and Abrahamson's book is well worth the price of admission.

Related articles