#9 Case Study: OD Experiences of a Sorcerer’s Apprentice

A while back, I was working with an executive who had been trying to change the culture in his area of responsibility. With the best intentions, this manager introduced a whole range of new ideas,  his intention was to keep his area agile and to leverage his experimental personality. 

First, he introduced what he called a “you” culture of communication for everyone.  This caused irritation in some people but was eventually well accepted. Then he began to withdraw himself completely from the operational business. He believed that a collective decision was more important than his opinion and then delegated all strategic decisions to the teams. He took care of external issues only.  “They are all experienced adults,” was his perspective.

And like the sorcerer’s apprentice in Goethe’s poem, the whole thing spiraled out of control.  It failed miserably. Frustration was high, there were more mistakes, more conflicts, bad mood and more dismissals. Everybody wanted to go back to the classic style of leadership. They no longer wanted the freedom they were given. They wanted him back in his old role, they wanted him back to what they thought his role should be as a leader. He was surprised to find that he had gone too far and that some traditional leadership methods were still necessary.

What happened?

First, speed. If you’ve never jogged before, you can’t run a marathon. A marathon requires continuous preparation over a long period of time. And if it’s your first long-distance run or if you have physical limitations, you won’t be among the first finishers either. The same applies to organisations. If you have not prepared your employees for each step over the years, you cannot expect them to change all at once. To expect an organisation to evolve from a Roman Empire to a swarm, without intermediate steps, creates an overload for your employees and frustration for yourself. Being realistic in our expectations is often the first step toward success.

Second, the way in which the manager introduced the change was extremely positive but not effective because it was not always consistent, without consultation and without a clear common definition of the new roles, both for himself and for the division. Frustration was inevitable. Agility cannot be created with chaos. It requires clear instructions, roles, and rules of conduct, what to do and not do with who’s and why’s. It may sound like a paradox but, the freedom of each individual in the organisation can only unfold with an order. And the role of the manager must still be decisive here.


Golden Management Rule

Your organisation is not a playground. Everything you introduce and do has consequences for the people who work there. It is better to introduce fewer measures,  implemented in a thoughtful, targeted and consistent manner,  than to be constantly trying something new, changing direction and thus creating a feeling of confusion.

You find more advice in my Corporate Coaching!

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