Friday, July 25, 2003


Sun Tzu's Management Leadership. A weekly column by Dr Ong Hean Tatt.

ONE of the delightful highlights of a tour of the Buckingham Palace is the changing of the guards. The orderly systematic change of guard is a colourful event. The guards standing at the gate of the palace would be stiff and still.

But, with the changing of the guards, suddenly there is movement and a flurry of colours, accompanied by the blowing of trumpets.

This change of guard even becomes a tourist attraction.

How does this compare to the changing of the top management in modern business corporations? For a large proportion of the top staff, it would be an uncertain and foreboding period.

“Heads would fall,” some would say. This is because the change is often aimed at reversing a trend of poor performance in the organisation.

The current head would be deemed as a failure, along with those who are closely associated with him.

As such changes often involve changes in organisational structure, some staff would feel discriminated against or feel bad about being passed over.

Older workers would be especially annoyed to see new employees coming in with higher pay despite doing less work. The men are engrossed in the bad fallouts and are distracted from doing an honest day’s work. The changes in the positions and responsibilities will often generate much resentment and unhappiness and further jeopardise the organisation.

An incoming new managing director tends to show he is different from his predecessor. There is a tendency to regard the current procedures and regulations as inadequate. So the new leader would change procedures and regulations.

Unfortunately, the employees are used to and have developed habits due to the previous procedures and regulations. There may be unconscious resistance to the new procedures and regulations.

It takes time to get used to the new procedures and regulations, and some may never get used to them at all. There will be loss of efficiency and even an increase in hostility and friction.

In another word, the new ways are “entangled” with the old ways:

Abandoned ground which is hard to re-occupy is entangled ground. From such ground, if the enemy is unprepared, our attack will certainly dislodge them. But if he is prepared and we fail to defeat him, return being impossible, defeat will come. This is the disadvantage. (Sun Tzu 10:4-5)

Changes should be kept to a minimum and should concern only pertinent issues.

Whoever has acquired such lands and wants to hold onto them must keep just two things in mind: one is to wipe out the line of the previous prince and the other is to avoid changing either the laws or the taxes, so that the new acquisitions may become incorporated in the shortest possible time, with the old kingdom as one single body. (Machiavelli 1469-1527 in Adams 1977 p.6).

Another dangerous thing is that there could well be nothing wrong with the current procedures and regulations.

The problem would lie in poor implementation of the procedures and regulations and this would be a human resource problem. Therefore, undue emphasis on new procedures and regulations reflect a failure in the new leader to really try to know his workers, and he may just be barking up the wrong tree.

Staff positions must especially be carefully considered. Frequent changes indicate politicking, and thus reduce the emphasis on merits. People will re-align themselves with the new powerbrokers.

The staff would get more and more demoralised with the changes. They will even learn to sneer at the leaders who keep on failing to rectify the situation.

The remedy is to have a balance between merits and politics.

It may be necessary to remove deadwood, but one must be very careful to ensure there is technical merit for doing so.

As these deadwood often have powerful cliques, they could sabotage the operations of the organisation. It may be necessary to shift deadwood to ceremonial posts with no loss of face.

Learn a lesson from the Buckingham Palace’s change of guards. The guards felt no threat to their positions. Instead, the orderly change delights everyone, from the guards to the public.

The Star, Thuesday 24/7/03

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