Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Michael Roberto on Change Management

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Michael Roberto on Change Management
June 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Prof. Michael Roberto
Trustee Professor of Management at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI.

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  • Thank you Professor for sharing your profound ideas with us. Also congratulations for being an oftencited author in change management. What were the antecedents for embarking on this topic? Was there any powerful trigger?
    This project began with our desire to study a turnaround process in realtime, as it actually unfolded. Most studies of change are conducted after the transformation has taken place. The problem with such studies is that they are susceptible to a great deal of biases and rationalizations as people recall the process. In this case, we found a

    leader (Paul Levy) willing to allow us to study the turnaround from the very beginning. Our first Interview with Paul was conducted just a week into his tenure as CEO. We then conducted an Interview with him every 3 weeks, on video, for the first six months of his tenure. Therefore, we could hear Paul explaining what he had just done, as well as what he was about to do in the coming week. He had no idea whether he would succeed or not—he was simply describing his thought process at the time. This realtime study of a turnaround is very unique and we were fortunate that Mr. Levy was willing to cooperate in this effort.

  • Unlike other subjects, wasn't Change Management an abstract one? How difficult was it to theorize and put the research findings in an understandable and applicable manner?
    Change management is an abstract topic. However, my co-author (David Garvin) and I are both very practically oriented scholars. We care a great deal about developing ideas that have relevance for practitioners, not simply for other scholars. Therefore, we tried to make this very concrete by focusing on the day-to-day activities of Mr. Levy and his team. We didn't stay at a high level, but instead, investigated a whole series of actions, events and decisions that were tactical in nature… rather than simply focusing on the high-level strategic choices that occur much less frequently in the life of an organization.

  • Why do people resist change? What's the psychology of resistance?
    This is a very complex question and I would need hours to do it justice. To summarize, though, I would say that humans naturally fear the unknown. We want to be in control. Change efforts often create a loss of a sense of control, and therefore, they cause fear —which leads to resistance to change. Moreover, if we have been the people responsible for the current course of action, then it becomes difficult for us to change course. We experience what is called the sunk cost effect—i.e., because we have committed a large amount of time, energy and money to the current course of action, we have a hard time cutting our losses. Instead, we escalate our commitment to the current course of action, even if it is failing.

  • You have remarked in Change Through Persuasion (HBR, February 2005), "And when an organization has had a succession of leaders, resistance to change is even stronger". Why is it so?
    David Garvin and I have described this as "this too shall pass" phenomenon. Lower level employees simply come to believe that, if they wait long enough, the current leaders of the organization will leave and the change effort will fade away. People become jaded. Their skepticism about change efforts builds when one transformation after another seems to just fall apart. In some firms, we see this as a "flavor of the month" approach. In other words, senior leaders seem to offer bold initiatives, but then they don't stick with them for a long period of time. Each year, a new "fad" or "flavor of the month" seems to be launched. Employees realize that they can simply wait and a new initiative will come along. They recognize that senior leaders simply aren't going to persist in tough change efforts. Thus, employees become emboldened to resist change initiatives.

  • How do you rate the turnaround efforts of Lee Iacoca at Chrysler, Louis Gerstner at IBM and Carlos Ghosn at Nissan Motors?
    Well, the results speak for themselves. Each saved a company on the brink of collapse. Each, of course, had a very different leadership style. However, they had a few things in common. First, they were willing to make the tough choices required to improve performance. Nothing was off-limits. Second, they inspired and motivated well. Third, they had what Welch would call a "bias for speed." They didn't stretch out major decisions over a long period of time. They made choices about what had to be done and moved quickly. They recognized that they didn't have the luxury of staging the change process over long periods of time. The situation required a sense of urgency.

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