Organizational Change: Only the People Can Save the Organization

Recently my friend Dan Duckworth shared a story that greatly shaped his approach as a change agent.  As a student, he was assigned to a research effort in India.  His job was to assess the impacts of a telecommunication project.  He spent months in villages and came to a clear conclusion: the project had virtually no impact.

After the assessment, Dan spent the next eight weeks traveling the country.  As he did, he read important books on international development that articulated strategies for helping poor countries.  He began to formulate an unlikely conclusion: all the famous authors were wrong and their problem-solving strategies were flawed.

One day he stood in a bus, sandwiched closely with many people.  As he surveyed the situation, he had a personal epiphany: “Only Indians can save India.”  He concluded that for a social system to flourish, to become socially excellent, the energy must come eventually from the people in the existing system, people with a deep understanding of the system.  An outsider observing from a distance with cold economic logic is less likely to succeed because they cannot trigger the energy within; they cannot stimulate the emergence of social excellence.

Years passed.  Dan had significant managerial experiences and then became a consultant on organizational change.  After a few experiences that were less than optimal, he concluded: “You cannot solve the problems of the people in an organization.  Knowledge, logic, and technology are never the answer.  As Peter Drucker once wrote, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’  Only the people in the organization who understand it deeply can save the organization.”

On the one hand, Dan’s conclusion does not seem to make sense.  If there is a disaster in a poor country and a rich country rushes in with aid, lives are saved.  Some economic development projects have positive impacts.  Some organizations import technologies that improve their situation.  CEOs announce a merger and sometimes the merger succeeds.

On the other hand, Dan is sharing a most important insight.  Vast numbers of logical interventions fail because the culture of the target system goes unaltered.  An expert once told me that most efforts to implement lean manufacturing fail because companies buying the lean concepts almost always ignore the directive to do culture work first.  And they ignore it because they do not know how to do culture work.

The conventional mind is locked into the notion that experts with authority and knowledge act upon the powerless.  Such technical logic ignores the organic nature of human networks.  It ignores the need to effectively integrate, align, and mobilize people in the process of collective learning.  Dan’s insight extends to the internal workings of every hierarchy.  The people at the top cannot change an organization by simply initiating new policies.  Culture does eat strategy for breakfast.  Real leaders, people capable of facilitating learning, have to fully understand the culture.  As Dan learned for himself, only the people who understand the underlying dynamics of the culture can change the organization.



  • When you attend a meeting in which top management announces a new change, and you go back to your office, what do you do?
  • Why do hierarchal, top-down change efforts so often fail?
  • In successful change efforts, what do change leaders do that conventional managers cannot do?
  • How can we use this passage to create a more positive organization?