The University Record, October 22, 1997
By Jane R. Elgass
While quality is very important, it is not just a matter of statistics and formulas to follow. It really is "culture at the institutional level and character at the individual level," said Robert Quinn, the Margaret Elliot Tracy Distinguished Professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, during his keynote address on "Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within" at the M-Quality EXPO last week.
To implement quality at any level, one must first overcome three problems that play a role any time change is desired. They are a constant for everyone and in every setting, he said.
The first is the logic of task pursuit. In this instance, we insist on doing all the little tasks, putting off tackling the big one that will make a difference.
Quinn cited the parable of the hermit in wilderness who, knowing a big storm is coming, realizes he must chop more firewood. He notices that his saw is dull, but tackles cutting the wood. The saw gets duller and duller, making the job take longer and longer.
"We all do this all the time," Quinn said. "I call it the tyranny of the 'in box.' The task always drives out the maintenance. The organization must be fixed so the job can be done effectively."
The second is the narrowing of options under stress.
At one time, there was a particular plane that had to be rolled over before the pilot could safely eject. When pilots changed to another plane, they rolled it over before ejection, killing themselves in the process. "Were the pilots dumb?" Quinn asked. "Certainly not. In times of stress--when we see few options--we go back to the 'first etching,' our original training. If the problem has changed, our automatic reaction from that original training will cause more trouble."
Denial is the third problem. "In denial, information comes to us and we find some way to 'neutralize' it," Quinn noted, because it's often painful and suggests that change is needed. "We ignore it, don't even contemplate it," Quinn said.
At one time at IBM, Quinn explained, you could get any personal computer you wanted as long as it was a mainframe. The Nixon White House had a dominant coalition that few questioned.
"If you dare to say anything contrary in this type of situation, you're not a member of the group. This can be very painful; living it can be devastating."
We are a global community, Quinn noted, and the reality that is thrust on us is constant change. We must learn to accept the challenge of change or be left behind. Very often, he said, resistance to change results in the slow death of an organization or even ourselves.
But slow death is not only apparent in sick organizations. "It's widespread," Quinn said, noting that in doing consulting work in healthy organizations he has seen "pockets of people walking around like zombies. There's no human resource left, yet the organization demands 'give us more.'"
Typical symptoms of slow death include:
The discovery problem. "I don't think I have it in me." "I don't think I can handle one more major change." "I've only got a couple of years left."
The opium of action problem. We keep busy so we don't have to think about the challenge, "sort of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Quinn said.
The starvation for vision problem. Fifteen years ago, you could get a job at IBM or Ford and be secure for life, Quinn explained. This is not true today. The workplace is a turbulent environment. People do not feel secure as uncertainty increases and the thirst for information rises. People are starved for meaningful systems.
The threat of deep change is always terrifying, Quinn said. It means giving up control. The normal human response is to choose control over effectiveness.
We choose "peace and pay," Quinn said, but asked at what price. Some people choose to leave their current jobs, but quickly find out the new place is the same as the old.
What we must do is practice the imagery of deep change:
Examine our vitality. Go back to out beginnings to see what created us. Retelling that to ourselves will create energy for change.
Break the logic of task pursuit, "the tyranny of the 'in basket.'"
Listen to your inner voice. It's likely sending the right message.
Enact your vision. Decide what you need to do and take action to accomplish the task.
Remember the power of one. A single person really can make a difference, Quinn said, citing the 1700s case of Quaker John Woolman, who was a salesman. He was against slavery, but when he visited homes that held slaves, he never argued, just asked questions about slavery. Twenty years later, no Quaker had slaves. "What if there had been more than one John Woolman?" Quinn asked.
"The rate of change is going up," Quinn stated. "We must reinvent ourselves. The price of peace and pay is too great. You and I must redo ourselves. When we do so, we'll be empowered."