The Dance of Change: Mastering the Twelve Challenges to Change in a Learning Organization

> Peter Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard Ross, George Roth, and Bryan Smith
1999, 596 pages (0385493223)

The two words that best summarize The Dance of Change are practical and profound.  It is a practical book because it details useful techniques for overcoming common obstacles to improve new product development (NPD) process and implementation.  It is profound because it reveals the sources of complex organizational dysfunctions and suggests pathways for creating effective organizational culture.

The authors identify 10 obstacles to achieving profound change in organizations, with names such as "They're not walking the talk!" and "We keep reinventing the wheel." Although the book is targeted toward a general management audience, it provides numerous NPD examples.  I am a person who uses the index of a book quite a bit.  When looking for NPD, I found much more material in the book than the three entries in the index.  Here is a list of additional pages on NPD: 98, 150, 161, 173, 185, 283, 330, 344, 369, 370, 394, 395, 414, 432, and 468.

Here's an example that almost any NPD team will relate to.  An NPD team was working excessively long hours.  They determined the core problem was the constant interruption of meetings, schedule checks, and management reviews.  The team restructured its day into "quiet time" and "interactive time." They achieved "astounding" results as the team launched their product on time and with better quality.  This example illustrates a technique for overcoming the barrier of "We don't have time for this stuff."

In another example, Cellular One creatively leveraged limited resources and built a network in a short amount of time by tying their expansion to a competitor's expanding capacity.  This example of "management Aikido" is a creative approach to overcoming the barrier of "We don't know what we're doing and we have no help!"

Visteon (the former Ford Motor components business) provides a good case study in the use of learning disciplines to improve product launches.  Instead of the usual training, Visteon held a series of meetings involving all levels of the organization.  Almost immediately they saw positive results on their new launches.  Visteon overcame the barrier of "This stuff isn't relevant" by helping people define relevance in terms of their day-to-day job.

Change efforts run into measurement problems: Early results don't meet expectations, or traditional metrics don't calibrate to a pilot group's efforts.  The authors call this barrier "This stuff isn't working!" The Dance of Change describes an NPD-improvement effort at United Technologies that backfired due to a poor set of metrics and rewards.  The firm's objective was to reduce cycle time, but the reward system encouraged deliberative behaviors that slowed development (in this case: "make no mistakes and protect your turf').  By developing a more holistic vision and linking it to appropriate rewards, they were able to increase collaboration and decrease cycle time from 40 days to 5 days.  Another success story described a NPD project team that launched a year ahead of schedule.  The key to success was developing a norm where engineers talked candidly about problems that they didn't know how to solve and documented them early.  This openness created a mechanism so that many people could contribute toward better and quicker solutions.

The Dance of Change concisely and productively explores some of the core challenges of influencing and changing culture (which the authors define as shared learning, not just desired behavior).  A story from Harley Davidson suggests that culture probably cannot be changed, only evolved.  Harley Davidson's individual, informal, and heroic operating culture stems from its origins as individual "rebel artists." An undesired side effect was that the culture kept the system in perpetual havoc, diminishing the capability to develop more products reliably.  Learning how to maintain the good parts of a culture while overcoming its downsides is an essential management challenge.  For Harley Davidson, some of the answer might be in a library of systems diagrams for NPD launches that it created with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to understand the strength and limitations of its culture.  The intent is to assure the diffusion of good ideas and to avoid "We keep reinventing the wheel."

Lasting, deeply held change in the thinking and values that create an organization's culture is squarely a target of The Dance of Change.  The excellent results that we all hope for from new systems, strategies, and structures require a profound change in individuals and organizations.  Key to the successful implementation of learning organizations is revealing and understanding the assumptions that are held in the organization.  The Dance of Change provides a frank and brutal assessment of the current infatuation with "knowledge management," which the authors describe as the use of information technology to leverage talents and capabilities across the organization.  Unless we examine such embedded conditions as the designed isolation of teams and the lack of vigorous internal learning communities, investment in IT tools is likely wasted.

If a pilot group obtains good results, won't the organization beat a path to the pilot project's door?  Although the "better mousetrap" theory is logical, experience shows that great ideas often do not diffuse into organizations.  This book explains the fallacy of the better mousetrap: The world won't beat a path to the innovator's door when there is cultural drag.  Ultimately change takes place on a personal level, individual by individual.  The authors prescribe a hierarchy of needs.  First, emphasize personal results (individuals agree to a learning program "because it matters"), then the network ("because my colleagues take it seriously"), and then finally because of business results ("because it works").  Improved performance does not originate from fiat, coercion, or reorganization, but is done in a personal way.

The Dance of Change is an insightful and resourceful book that rewards with numerous insights.  You do not need to read the book cover to cover.  Just pick one of the many references to NPD and dive in.

Greg Githens

Catalyst Management Consulting, March 2000