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‘Smart Things to know about Change’ by David Firth


Smart things to know about change
by David Firth
Published by Capstone Publishing at £12.99

When a book challenges you, then it is worth reading, even if you simply cannot agree with some of the propositions made, or even if, in your view they are wrong. ‘Smart things to know about change’ falls into that category. For example, with the best will in the world, I cannot accept the statement on page xxi that "the only ‘problem people’ in organisations are those who haven’t yet been given the time, information, psychological space, training or, indeed, the choice to change". That simply does not square with my experience. For example, I can vividly recall responsible employees who fully understood what was going on, and simmered with rage with the consequences for their own lives, with a concomitant effect on their own commitment.

What these angry employees face is, to quote page xxvi, organisations who, once they have set their vision, will "simply not tolerate deviations from alignment. Nor are employees necessarily happy that their companies need them "to have a mastery of personal change", which means ‘you’ need to know "how to get on with others, create synergy of ideas and dissipate conflict" and "you have the courage to challenge the status quo" and so on. What happens, it occurs to me, if you are less perfect than this ideal or if your ideas deviate from the organisations? Change is going to be very painful and you are likely to become a problem. And it isn’t helpful to be told on page 9 that "the healthiest response is always acceptance".

It is possible to continue in this vein, but before moving on to more positive aspects, I would like to point to one issue which grates, and where I do not even think the book is on line with good industrial practice. On page 23, there is a table which is headed "Nothing significant will change in the organisational sphere unless personal transformation occurs." There are two lists, describing contrasting personal biases. So ‘self-gratification’ is contrasted with ‘self-knowledge’ and so on and that is harmless enough, but what seems to me less acceptable is contrasting ‘emphasis on family’ (in the bad column) with ‘emphasis on community/involvement’ (good column).

There are, however, statements with which we can agree. For example, on page 36 we are told that "Life doesn’t seem to share our desires for efficiency or neatness. It uses redundancy, fuzziness, dense webs or relationships, and unending trials and errors to find what works".

Most can accept that "a value is to a value unless it has seven factors" (page 67), and these include it must be ‘freely chosen’; ‘chosen from a consideration of alternatives’; ‘prized and cherished’ and ‘acted upon’

Nor is there too much difficulty in the statement of vision that occurs on page 93. " No matter how beautifully articulated our vision, for example, their fear about its implications might cause then not to connect and commit with it. To truly communicate we have to care as much about the audience as our message".

Let us ignore that this last statement seems to contradict some of the statements listed at the beginning of this review, we find that large sections of the book are full of similar types of assertions. Many of them true, but at the same time not particularly helpful. The helicopter vision is very good, but there is always the nagging questions throughout the book, how can this wisdom help me?

In spite of this, there is one section in my opinion, which really makes its point very well, and deserves to be widely quoted. The subject is the difficulty of being honest about one’s feelings at a time of change. The question is what can I really say to the boss about my feelings without damaging myself? For example, on page 112, he quotes the thoughts of a ‘victim’ of change "Although I am nodding, I don’t understand - what you are intending, why you’re doing it or how it will all happen. I’m not stupid, it’s just that my fears and internal dialogue deafened me whilst you were explaining your ideas"
There are many more similar examples, and they almost alone make the book worthwhile.

Similarly, his amplification of what people do as they go through the five stage coping cycle (quoted from Clampitt - Communicating for Managerial Effectiveness, Sage Publications 1991) is very worthwhile. Thus people at the denial stage do not show up for meetings, are overly busy with routine tasks and so on.

But the wisdom is spoiled on page 137 with the statement "Aligning the culture behind your vision allows change to flow easily through the organisation. Misalignment causes confusion and conflict to arise". Oh that life were so simple!
Likewise, the measurement of ‘soft’ issues, always an important part of the management of change, is rather glossed over (page 158).

From here on, the book mainly degenerates into a series of platitudes. So when we are told that ‘Great followership’ consists of "I will do the best that I can as often as I can" alongside another fifteen such clichés, the eyes start to glaze over. As one staggers on to the end, there is an excellent check list on "Saying farewell to the past".

So, as I implied at the beginning of the review, there are some nuggets and much dross and much to disagree with. But the bits that are worthwhile often refer to further reading, and that probably makes the book worthwhile.

Peter Martin
Arlington Associates


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