Organizational Change
An Ethical, Means Based, Approach to Organizational Change

Ethical Change
Does the End Justify the Means?

The series of events which I have just outlined (see cover page) troubled me for a number of weeks after the quality engineer was promoted. On a personal level, I did not like the production manager who got fired. On the other hand I was troubled by the means which led to his firing. Was his firing really necessary to improve the operation of the organization?

I have come to the conclusion that the answer is no. The changes to the organization which occurred after the production manager was fired could have happened while he was still in charge. The product quality had improved with the institution of an inspection program. The program, however, decreased productivity. The quality engineer had the power to correct this condition prior to the firing of the production manager.

Assume that the decrease in productivity was, at least initially, unintentional. The quality engineer could have corrected this situation in the same manner as was done after the production manager was fired when the decrease in productivity was initially noticed. At this moment in time the quality engineer was thrust into the role of change agent. In this leadership function he could act as he did and end up gaining the credit for improving the organization or he could have acted to simply improve the organization.

If the quality engineer had acted simply to improve the organization, I believe that he would not have received the credit. Upper management's understanding of the situation was limited to the knowledge that the organization was not meeting ship dates. If this situation, from upper management's perspective, began to improve, the credit would most likely go to the production manager. In this organization, the production manager was quite hostile to the ideas the quality engineer had for further organizational improvement. It was very likely that if the production manager got the credit for the organization's improvement, the quality engineer's job would become more difficult.

The moment of greatest interest is the point at which the agent of change takes on a leadership role and acts on of the two possibilities which I have outlined. Does the quality engineer act toward the common good at risk to the detriment of self or does he act to the detriment of the production manager under the guise of improving the organization?

A leader, as an agent of change, always operates in the present. The decision of how to act and when to act is always in the present. It is difficult to consider "We should have done X." (the past) or "We should do Y." (the future) leadership. Action is the key element. A lack of action at the proper moment is an abdication of leadership. Action only occurs in the present. The implication of this logic is that an agent of change acting as a leader only has control over the means. A leader has no control over the end because the end is in the future.

Justifying an action based on the value of a good end is less concrete than you might expect. In the example of the quality engineer when does the end occur?
When the product quality improved.
When the production manager got fired.
When productivity improved.
or When the quality engineer was made vice-president.
No matter what end you select it is simply a point in time. The next day the end is in the past. An end is vague and fleeting event. As time goes by all that remains are means. I am not at all certain that an "end" exists.

Does the end justify the means? I have found the teachings of Gandhi the most instructive in resolving this question on a personal level. In my reading and meditation on Gandhi's philosophy I have come to the following interpretation: You can not achieve a just end using unjust means. A leader who wishes to be an agent of change must take action at the appropriate point in time using ethical means.

The Implication of Change Based on Ethical Means

As in the case of the quality engineer, there will be situations where an ethical leader, as an agent of change, will to act in a way which benefits the good of the organization to the detriment of the leader. This is radical departure from conventional understanding of a leader. In essence a leader who chooses this course of action may be marginalized by the very organization they are trying to improve. The efforts of this type of leader may go largely unrecognized.

As I stated earlier, a leader can only act in the present. To truly understand the dynamics of organizational change it must be understood with respect to the moment when action is required. To be an ethical leader, the action must be judged on its own and not against a future good.

Based on my experience, the process of deciding on a means and selecting the moment to act can amount to a dark night of the soul. Acting as an ethical change agent has its risks. Imagine what Martha Wright, Lucreatia Mott, Jane Hunt, Mary All McClintock and Elizabeth Cady Stanton considered could happen to them when they decided to call a meeting to discuss the rights of women July 13, 1848 . Although on a lesser scale, this is the same type of decision made by the quality engineer when he was considering how to improve productivity.

A Unique Approach to Understanding Organizational Change

I hope it is clear that this is not a conventional paper on the subject of organizational change. To sharpen this contrast, the following is a description of the kind of conventional paper I could have written.

A conventional approach to understanding organizational change would start with an analysis of a successful model or a particular theory. In the case of the quality engineer, the successful model would have been Control Data. The author would interview upper management to document how quality and productivity had been improved. The quality engineer, now the vice-president of manufacturing, would relate how resistance by the production manager had been overcome and how the principles of the model organization had been implemented in the target organization. By establishing a cause and effect, the model or theory could be considered a valid methodology to improve quality and productivity in a manufacturing setting.

The seductive appeal of such an approach is rooted in cultural myths represented by such an analysis. The leader is cast in the role of the hero, overcoming obstacles to achieve a greater good. This example of a hero is not in the classic sense as described by Joseph Campbell because the hero did not sacrifice himself for the greater good. This is a more contemporary "Rambo" style hero who suspends morality to achieve a just end. In either case, the hero motif is undeniable.

A second cultural myth contained in this type of analysis is outlined by J. Bronowski . The organization is viewed in a Newtonian sense where all that is necessary to improve an organization is to change its "mechanics". We also see the progression of knowledge and its application toward improvement.

In effect, a conventional analysis of organizational change makes sense because it fits within the cultural myths of how we believe an organization functions. I must admit unless I had been a witness to how this particular organizational change actually occurred, I would find this conventional approach to be a compelling and accurate analysis.

At the time, however, I was faced with a decision: would I continue my role as assistant to the new vice president or would I break the connection. Having an understanding of change methodology used by this person, should I continue to help facilitate the process? To make this decision I needed to analyze the specific methodology utilized and determine if it was ethical to continue to support its application. Ultimately I choose not to continue in a supporting role.

In the process of making this decision, I began to develop an unconventional view of organizational change. I began to focus on the ethics of change and in particular the process of what other authors termed "getting buy in". While it is almost universally accepted that "buy in" is essential, little or nothing is written about how this is achieved. It is my contention that understanding the dynamics of achieving "buy in" or a shift in an organization's culture is the key element to understanding the process of how organization's change.

A conventional analysis of organizational change is focused in one of two areas, achieving greater efficiency or achieving social justice. In either case the focus is on the ends rather than the means. What makes this approach to understanding organizational change unique is that it is focused on the means rather than the ends.

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