Organisational Change – Outside the Square

The truth is we need a totally new management paradigm in this place.” I have heard senior executives say. When a client asks me to find a solution to a problem that provides something new, innovative or change outside the square, I’m reminded of Jack Nicholson’s famous retort to Tom Cruise’s character in the film “A Few Good Men” and I paraphrase it to “Can you handle something outside the square?”  

                                                   (Image: Courtesy )

Many executives think that only something totally new and creative will help them remedy a difficult organisational issue. In some cases that might be quite correct but there is also a high risk that they and the organisation lack the commitment, foresight and management sophistication to handle dramatic change. Wishing for a new and creative solution demands a readiness to embrace something totally different to that which may have been in existence for many years. Often the result of adopting such an approach is a significant culture shock which if not managed effectively can negate any benefits of a new direction.

A common mistake made by incoming executives to an organisation is to try to transplant highly sophisticated systems or cultures that they may have found successful in a previous posting to the new organisation which may not be ready to cope with that sophistication.

Not that management should be discouraged from seeking to go when no one in that organisation has gone before. On the contrary, launching out into paths less travelled is often a way to freshen up everyone’s thinking about what is achievable. It just requires a few simple rules and caveats to give the best chance of success.

Different paths to management innovation.

There are three fundamental ways to take organisations in new directions or toward revitalisation and each has its own pros and cons.

Something completely different

This approach seeks to totally dismantle the current paradigm and replace it with a new model – usually with little resemblance to its predecessor. The reason for such a dramatic change is usually to ensure that the negative aspects of the current situation that gave rise to the need for dramatic change are not allowed to dilute or counteract the benefits of the new model.

The risk of course is that the change is so great that it creates its own trauma and negative results through lack of commitment or alienation of key personnel.

Easy does it

An alternative to the boots and all approach is to implement a change that is an improved variant of, or something not totally different to the current model. It needs to be sufficiently different to demonstrate a break from old ineffective ways and culture but not so novel as to generate fear, resentment or outright opposition. The best approach to achieve this direction is to ensure that there are one or more champions experienced in the old model who are committed and prepared to take forward new ideas or improvements to current ways.

The stepped approach
Change outside the square

(Image courtesy

This involves a little of both the previous approaches and requires a commitment to a longer term view. Typically this approach requires a rigorous implementation plan envisaging two or three stages to achieving complete evolution to the desired new state. In itself this approach creates some challenges because of the need to endure a gradual progression which some in the organisation might see as creating a constant environment of change over a long period. It also requires some committed managers with the perseverance to see successive stages through to fruition.


Even Pablo Picasso who was forever working with and outside squares reinforced the value of planning. “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” – Pablo Picasso.


How do I know change outside the square will suit my organisation?

There are a number of questions that managers should address in deciding whether they and their organisation can handle the truth of change outside the square.

  • Is the current culture beyond mere tweaking such that desparate measures are required to get better results?
  • Do I have managers, supervisors or team leaders who are being held back by current cultures and management practices  – and can they rise to a more innovative style?
  • Do I have a management team capable of implementing a totally new management paradigm?
  • Will I need to reskill or even replace my management team in order to have them embrace a new culture?
  • Is my organisation so fragile that major change will be counter-productive or indeed destructive instead of constructive?
  • Are there any risks in any of the above approaches that I or my governing body are just not prepared to take?
  • What are the consequences of doing nothing?
  • What will the relative effects of the respective approaches be on organisational stakeholders such as customers, suppliers, shareholders?
  • Do I have to undertake a preparatory phase of building resilience in my team before starting out on major change?
  • Do I personally have the commitment, stamina, patience and resolve to do what it takes to manage significant change or even incremental change?
  • How urgent is it that I achieve the necessary change and what are the consequences of any delay?
  • Will incremental change get me to the same point as major change albeit more slowly, or will I find myself in some other place but still dissatisfied?
  • Are there different costs associated with the alternative approaches, and is that a significant consideration?
  • Are the relative costs and benefits of the approaches clearly discernible and does one clearly outweigh the others in terms of net benefit?
  • Will an incremental approach merely create frustration for the reformers and opportunity to filibuster for the change opponents?
  • Which option will impose more demands on my time to ensure results and how will I manage that time?

(image courtesy

When I was in primary school we were discouraged from taking anything but a conservative approach to change. We were taught adages like “slow and steady wins the race” by use of a metaphor where the tortoise, not the hare, was the hero. I quickly rejected that philosophy. Thankfully my children experienced the next generation of teaching where they were encouraged to “soar like eagles”.

My advice to clients is to always opt for going forward rather than staying put but to moderate the speed of change according to the capacity that they and their management team have to drive the change and control its effects. 

 (Image: Courtesy

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