The Power Paradox

Overloaded plug socket

Established companies today are facing many problems. Recovering from the Covid pandemic. Adapting (or otherwise) to remote working. Keeping up with younger, smaller, faster competitors that seem to be able to adapt much more readily to today’s VUCA environment. The list seems to be endless. To do this, many are changing the way they work - they are undergoing transformation.

But…many have a problem… I give you the Pitts Power Paradox of Organisational Transformation! (Not exactly a snappy title, granted). Let me explain.

Having been involved in many of these transformations where ‘traditional’ companies are attempting to change the way they do business, I am seeing a common pattern of failure. They ignore one fundamental issue that can be summed up in a single quote:

All organisations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” - Arthur W. Jones

Every organisation already has a system in place - a way of working - that gets precisely the existing results. To change the result, the organisation’s system needs to change. Simple! Well, maybe not; this is where the Power Paradox kicks in:

In order to begin to make radical systemic change in any organisation you need to have reached a certain level of respect and power within that organisation. This might be based on merit, but to most likely it will be based on seniority, especially in large traditional corporates. Investment in deep change needs to be agreed from the top in large organisations.

But here's the rub. In order to reach the level of seniority needed to make that change, anyone will have had to conform to the existing system needs, effectively being assimilated into the existing system. You need to show that you are a team player inside the system, reinforcing it, and playing the existing systemic game. As a result of this, you are likely to now be rewarded significantly well for doing so (salary, shares etc). You will have become another part of the existing system, getting the existing results, and are likely to have very little motivation to change the very system that got you there. As the late, great Gerry Weinberg would put it, “You have been pickled”. 

Cucumbers get more pickled than brine gets cucumbered.” - Prescott’s Pickle Principle

Putting it another way (again from Weinberg)

A small system that tries to change a big system through long and continued contact is more likely to be changed itself.

This Power Paradox is the reason why change in large companies is so difficult/nearly impossible from the inside. It also helps explain why it may become a little easier (note: not easy!) with the help and guidance of knowledgeable, reputable external help. 

Consultancies: caveat emptor

By limiting contact with the existing ways of working, external consultants try to minimise the influence the current system has on them, using the advantage to identify and suggest small, incremental changes to how the company works. Not infallible, but it helps.

One final idea for reducing the effect of the Power Paradox is for everyone involved in the "old" system, especially those senior managers initiating change, to consistently, openly and repeatedly show that they are aligned with the change. This anecdote from Dettmer's book The Logical Thinking Process illustrates once again how someone outside the existing system can help by pointing out damaging behaviours.

Watch out for the Power Paradox. Try and minimise its effect by listening to anyone who has not had continued contact with your existing company culture, whether external consultants or new hires. And if you are a senior leader who is truly serious about change, make sure you always demonstrate that you are fully aligned with change; lead from the front.