Why do organisations find it difficult to change when facing a disruption? The question is not new, but it continues to puzzle researchers and managers alike. Part of the answer lies in the observation that over time, what an organisation knows how to do migrates: its capacity lies initially in its resources (especially human), then it evolves to processes and finally to values. It is at this last stage that change is the most difficult.

The observation that an organisation evolves through these three stages was made by innovation specialist Clayton Christensen. According to him, at the beginning of an organisation’s existence, in the so-called “start-up” period, all it can do is attributable to its resources, and mainly its human resources (founders and first employees). The problems that arise are solved directly by the founders. It is quick and efficient and is the main reason for the agility of start-ups.

Over time, the resolution of these problems becomes formalised in terms of processes. This is especially true for recurring problems. This formalisation is a result of learning, and it allows the company to grow: new employees no longer have to rediscover the solutions to the problems encountered, or ask the founders; they apply the processes developed by their predecessors. The founders’ knowledge is embodied, so to speak, in processes. The creation of these processes is the necessary condition for a start-up’s ability to move from the creative/entrepreneurial era, where the founders’ presence is necessary to problem solving because all of them are new, to growth, where the resolution of these problems, which has become routine, is delegated to a growing number of individuals.

As the company continues to grow, decision-making for the resolution of the main problems becomes unconscious; it is based more and more on assumptions and principles generated from the successful resolution of past problems, and no longer on explicit decision-making. These processes and principles constitute the culture of the organisation, a reflection of its model of the world, i.e., a set of common values learned collectively by the organisation. These values make it possible to choose the most interesting customers, make production decisions, and more generally they are the basis of the resource allocation mechanism, which is the heart of the organisation’s management.

Values are very important because they allow any employee to act in coherence with the rest of the organisation and, most importantly, to link their action to its strategy. Values are the tool of remote management, indispensable as the organisation reaches a certain size when proximity with the founders can no longer exist. Values were what made the strength of the Roman Empire for centuries: a centurion who left Rome to reach a far-away country could not hope to communicate easily with the emperor. The latter briefed him, and he went far and wide to make decisions based solely on values and on an idea of the general strategy of the empire. The more these values are shared across the organisation, the more effectively the organisation operates in its environment.

Migration of capabilities

Hence, what defines what the organisation is able to do migrates over time: from resources to processes and to values, hence called the RVP model of migration.

This explains why change is so difficult. As long as the environment corresponds to the situations for which the processes were designed, and the values of the organisation can manage, the business is performing well. But a difficulty appears when the environment changes. Indeed, while these processes and these values define what the organisation can do, they also, by definition, define what the organisation cannot do: if it is optimised for an environment, then by definition it is not optimised for another environment.

Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs in 1977 with an Apple II motherboard. The company has grown, innovated and survived. But how long before Apple too is disrupted?
Flickr, CC BY

When an organisation’s capabilities reside in its resources (initial stage of start-up), change is easy: the founders decide to change, and the organisation can pivot. It is the strength of start-ups to change very easily when the founders are aware of the need to change their model. But when, at a later stage, an organisation’s abilities reside in its processes, and even more so when they reside in its values, change becomes extremely difficult.

That changing values is difficult is illustrated by a classic example: while most people would agree that exercising, traveling less, and eating more balanced food is good for health and can prevent heart attacks, few do it in practice as it implies a deep change in lifestyle that conflicts with other commitments such as career progression and social life.

It is the same for companies facing a disruption. The problem is rarely that they are not aware of the danger. To be aware of a danger and to actually react are two different things. Change requires the questioning of assumptions and values that have made the success of the organisation sometimes for decades in its current business. If this legacy activity is still healthy, it will be difficult to admit the need to question them, even if the perception of the danger exists, and it will be even more difficult because these values are shared by thousands of employees who see every day their beneficial effects. The strength of management by values, i.e. remote management, is now its weakness: the leader can proclaim loudly the need to change, the relay is not done precisely because everything has been set up so that employees act in an autonomous way.

As a result of this difficulty, one may be tempted to give up the titanic task of changing the values of an organisation, especially since this change undermines the legacy activity long before it allows, possibly, the birth of a new one. A solution often recommended, in particular by Christensen himself, is to create an autonomous entity to take advantage of the disruption. Because it will be starting from scratch, the entity will be able to create a new, relevant resources-process-values model. This is what Nestlé did with Nespresso for instance. But while it may ensure the success of the disruptive project, this approach is only tactically useful: it will not contribute to the transformation of the legacy organisation. Only a work on the core values and assumptions of the organisation – its mental model – will bring about necessary changes in the face of a disruption. A hard task indeed.

Philippe Silberzahn, Professeur stratégie et organisation, EM Lyon
The Conversation

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