Category Archives: Organizational Change

Sternberg’s Theory of Organizational Change —What Minerals Are Government Agencies?

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and inventor of the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. I became familiar with his work on successful intelligence in the mid-1980s and have used successful intelligence as the basis for my training and development work.

It’s his research program on organizational modifiability that I find relevant in my work. As we enter the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, there are many ideas from the candidates on how to reform the federal government. Add to these plans the current administration’s President Management Agenda which promises sweeping reforms to the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget recently announced award winners for their Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. As in the past administrations, there are several reinventing-government programs underway.

Even with all the change efforts, success has been mixed. What makes an organizational change effort successful? How should governments approach the change process? There are many theories of change management so, what insights does Dr. Sternberg offer?

Organizational Modifiability

Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:

Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

Universities and government agencies have much in common. They have various sizes, serve different constituencies and are similar in the way their bureaucratic processes work. And like universities, government agencies also need to learn. Three prerequisites need to be present to build the agency’s learning capacity.

The first prerequisite is the ability to change. There are two reasons an organization cannot change: a lack of resources or culture of stagnation. The second prerequisite is that the organization must believe that it can change. Closely related to the organization’s belief is the third prerequisite, which is the courage to change.

Using these three prerequisites, Dr. Sternberg created a cultural framework for institutional learning and change. The framework assesses three factors:

  1. “How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
  2. “How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
  3. “What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?”

Using the values of, “Low,” or, “High,” for each question, Dr. Sternberg describes eight types of organizational cultures in terms of learning and willingness to change. For each of the eight types, he assigned a different mineral as a metaphor.

Crystals

Organizational Cultures of Learning and Change as Minerals (These descriptions adopted from Organizational Modifiability).

“The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.

The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality.

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.”

Five Factors in Why Change is Hard

Even though Dr. Sternberg was describing universities, the above descriptions just apply to government agencies both in the federal, state and local governments. I have been on several change projects which purported to be diamonds in the rough but turned out to be opals or amber institutions.

According to Dr. Sternberg’s research, five factors determine how likely organizational change will happen. The first two factors are the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the change agent. If the change agent comes from outside the organization and does not appear to have the expertise for change management, the organizational stakeholders will resist change. I have seen this happen to numerous political appointees.

The third factor is who owns the change. If change is forced on the organization from the top without having the stakeholder groups buy-in to the change, the change effort will most likely fail.

The fourth and fifth factors concern the rate of change and the cultural compatibility of change. The organization and culture can only absorb so much change in terms of speed and the changing of existing cultural habits. As governments start a new round of change efforts, change agents would do well to consider the agency’s ability to learn and absorb the new change.

The Zen of Cultural Change

It is time to move from creating a more open government to sustaining open government. Yes, there is a lot more work to do in making agencies on all levels of government are releasing their data and becoming transparent. Governments have successfully picked the low-hanging fruit of opening up their datasets. It’s now time to change the culture of government, so openness, transparency, and collaboration are embodied in everything the government does. Ten years from now (if not sooner), government employees shouldn’t even have to wonder if they are open, transparent, and collaborative because the culture of the agency ensures that they are.

Culture is a natural byproduct of humans as social beings. We develop culture so we can get along, survive, and achieve goals. It is only natural we develop cultures at work because a large part of our waking hours is spent at work or thinking about work. A single person cannot have a culture; it takes interactions between each other to create a culture. But what exactly is culture?

There are many academic definitions for culture, but for our purposes, I prefer this simple definition: the way we do things around here. “We” come together in a defined group (e.g., IBM, HUD, Star Trek fans) and in a defined boundary such as a department, office, or online community (“around here”). We develop methods, practices, policies, etc. (“way”) that govern the actions (“do”) members of the culture take in response to “things” (issues, events, etc.) that we face as a culture. Essentially, organizational culture is how we collectively solve the problems we face every day in our work and life.

Thus, the resistance to changing the organizational culture. Problem-solving is hard and takes a lot of resources and effort. Humans are incredible at problem-solving, but they are also good at optimizing. We don’t like having to solve the same problems repeatedly, so we create things like writing, forms, email, databases, etc. These things embody the solutions we have created so that the next time the same problem shows up, we can solve it without having to think about it. We only give up our solutions when a demonstrably better solution comes along. And it better be a good solution if it has a chance of displacing the current solution.

Neon sign that says change.

Cultural change is not only possible, but it is necessary. Groups change, new events confront the group, and new problems face our culture. The reason why many intentional cultural efforts fail is that they don’t recognize the paradoxes of cultural change. This is what I can the Zen of culture because we blend many paradoxical ideas to develop culture. Here are three paradoxes that make cultural change difficult for those who do not first seek to understand the culture:

The culture is not the culture. There is no one culture but many cultures that people belong to. You may have an overall agency culture, but you also belong to the subculture of your department, the subculture of Redskins fans, the subculture of people who eat out for lunch, and so on. Some of these subcultures are easily changed, while others are ingrained in you. And how these subcultures interact to cause the resistance to change. For example, IT folks are often most open to new technologies while the law department would rather stay with the software, they have been using for the last 20 years because they have built many of their processes around how the software works.

We seek the novel and the safety of the familiar. Imagine a playground in an open field without fences. The children will often huddle together in the middle of the playground and are reluctant to wander out in the field. Now, put a fence around the playground. Then the children will often hang around the fence and are more willing to venture out in the open field. The setting of boundaries makes us adventurous. We have the safety of the fence we can run to between our adventures. Culture equals safety.

Culture remains the same by changing. Thanks to the Internet, many ancient religions are now being practiced today. Many Amish businesses use a personal computer in their business dealings with the outside world. Numerous monasteries sustain themselves by creating websites for clients. Cultural groups will often use new technologies or practices to maintain the current culture and its core beliefs. Championing change can be frustrating for a change agent when they see their innovation being used to defeat the intent of the change.