Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Perceptions of change

with 5 comments

Management, as it is taught in business schools, is rife with abstractions such as “strategic alignment” and “organizational culture”. The incident I’m about to relate happened about nine years ago, a few days after I had read Claudio Ciborra’s brilliant critique of strategic alignment and published an article about it.

I was at a company dinner where I happened to be sitting next to a senior executive from headquarters.  At that time the organization was in the throes of a large-scale IT transformation initiative aimed at “aligning IT with the business.” As might be expected, the conversation turned to the impending changes and how they would achieve “strategic alignment.”

Perhaps unwisely, I started talking about Ciborra’s critique and the gap between management abstractions and coalface reality. The conversation segued into the differences between management and employee perceptions of the changes we were going through, and at some point I said, “employee perceptions tend to become their reality.”

 The executive set his fork down on his plate. “You’ve got that wrong,” he said with a tight smile, “my perception is your reality.”


Management theorists invented the concept of organizational culture to deal with the “problem” of aligning employee values with those of the organization.  However, as noted in a classic paper by Hugh Willmott, the concept is inherently flawed, not to mention a shade Orwellian:

“[the notion of organizational culture is based on] an implicit understanding that the distinctive quality of human action, and of labour power, resides in the capacity of self-determination [of purpose and action]. This insight informs the understanding that corporate performance can be maximized only if this capacity is simultaneously respected and exploited…corporate culture invites employees to understand that identification with its values ensures their autonomy. That is the seductive doublethink of corporate culture: the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the conditions of autonomy.”

And then, a bit later in the piece:

“[Advocates of organisational culture] take it for granted that the objectives of the organization can be engineered to become consensual. Since every employee is assumed to share these objectives, and to benefit from their realization, there can be no moral objection to corporate cultural demands.”

However, such thinking is morally ambiguous:

“Instead of contributing to the development of a societal culture in which individuals learn to appreciate, and struggle with, the problematical experience and significance of indeterminacy, [organisational] culturism promotes what is, in effect, a totalitarian remedy for this existential problem. [Organisational] culturism directly exploits the feelings of insecurity and ‘irrationalism’ that are intensified by the capitalist process of commodification [of skills and labour].”

Employees tend to toe the corporate culture line because of the security it appears to offer. However, such buy-in is largely in letter, not spirit: although you might be able to control what people do, and may even get them to pledge allegiance to “organizational values,” you cannot control what they think. This is the point I was trying to get across to the executive.

I left the organization three years later, surprised that I lasted that long.


Perceptions of change depend on where one sits in the organizational hierarchy.

Many years ago, I was part of a project team that was working on replacing a venerable Lotus Notes–based system with a newer customer relationship management (CRM) product. I was tasked with integrating data from the CRM with other syndicated and publicly available data sets. The requirements were complex, but the system design evolved through continual, often animated discussions between the development team and key business stakeholders in an environment characterized by openness and trust.

The system was delivered on schedule, with minimal rework required.

Five years later, I was invited to participate in a regional project at the same company. The objective, which was set by the corporate IT office located in Europe, was to build a data warehouse for subsidiaries across Asia.  Corporate’s rationale for the project was quite reasonable. The data landscape across Asia was messy, with each subsidiary taking a bespoke approach to data management in order to address their local reporting needs. From corporate’s perspective, this was a situation crying out for standardization. On the other hand, the subsidiaries were happy with their existing systems. They perceived the push for standardization as a corporate power play that would result in a loss of local autonomy over data. 

To top it all, there were cultural differences around how such conflicts should be resolved.

Predictably, the discussions aimed at reaching a consensus devolved into heated Skype exchanges between stakeholders, forcing regional IT to step in and call a meeting to resolve the issue.

The story of how we resolved differences between corporate and local perspectives is documented in this article and this paper so I won’t reproduce it here. The point I wish to make is that the larger the change, the greater the effort required to align perceptions. Moreover, success depends entirely on developing trust-based relationships between warring stakeholder groups. This involves surfacing key points of contention and developing consensus decisions about them in a way that is acceptable to all parties. This is a matter of communication, not culture.


That said, I don’t like the term “communication” much. It glosses over details of what one must do to resolve differences, and the details matter because they are not obvious.

The anthropologist and polymath, Gregory Bateson once noted that “what [we lack] is a theory of action within large complex systems, where the active agent is himself a part and a product of the system.”

In the very next line to the one quoted above, Bateson offered a hint as to where an answer might lie. He noted that Kant’s categorical imperative – “act so to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in another, always as an end and never as only a means – might provide a starting point for such a theory.”

He then went on to say something truly intriguing: “It seems also that good teachers and therapists avoid all direct attempts to influence the action of others and, instead, try to provide the settings or contexts in which some (usually imperfectly specified) change may occur.”

This line resonated deeply when I read it first because it spelt out something that I had learnt through experience but had not found the words to articulate: change is best achieved by framing (or creating) a context within which individuals will see things differently and change of their own accord.


“I can’t handle failure,” she said. “I’ve always been at the top of my class.”

She was being unduly hard on herself. With little programming experience or background in math, machine learning was always going to be hard going.  “Put that aside for now,” I replied. “Just focus on understanding and working your way through it, one step at a time. In four weeks, you’ll see the difference.”

“OK,” she said, “I’ll try.”

She did not sound convinced but to her credit, that’s exactly what she did. Two months later she completed the course with a distinction.

“You did it!” I said when I met her a few weeks after the grades were announced.

“I did,” she grinned. “Do you want to know what made the difference?”

Yes, I nodded.

“Thanks to your advice, I stopped treating it like a game I had to win,” she said, “and that took the pressure right off.  I then started to enjoy learning.”


The student reframed her thinking in a way that changed her perceptions of the task at hand. Instead of treating it as an obstacle or race, she began to view it as an opportunity to learn. Doing so enabled her to meet the academic requirements of the university. Paradoxically, she passed the course with ease when she stopped obsessing about doing well and focused on learning instead. This echoes Bateson’s advice about changing a system from within and is an example of what John Kay calls obliquity: the idea that certain goals are best achieved indirectly. 

You do not get people to change their perceptions by telling them to change. Instead, you reframe the situation in a way that enables them to see it in a different light. They might then choose to change of their own accord.

As a change agent, isn’t that what you really wish for?


Written by K

January 10, 2023 at 7:57 pm

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Excellent as always. This fomenting/fermenting of change is politics, surely. What do you think of this: http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/class%20readings/weber/politicsasavocation.pdf

    What lessons and warning should the change agent take from Weber?

    Liked by 1 person

    Matt M

    January 10, 2023 at 8:15 pm

    • Hi Matt,

      Many thanks for taking the time to read and comment, and for the link to Weber’s lecture. His argument seems to be based on the notion that “the state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” Politics is then, “striving to share power or striving to influence the distribution of power, either among states or among groups within a state.” In brief this is about power and the means to attain / retain it. I assume your question has to do with how one can square this with what I’ve said in my post.

      A tacit assumption in the above is that allegiance to state – or in our case, the organisation – has to be enforced. I believe this to be flawed, both at the level of a state and organisation. In their book The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow describe how communities flipped between different social arrangements seasonally. The following quote from the book is apposite: “…archaelogical evidence is piling up to suggest that in the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors…shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangement…allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of the year and then dismantling them – all, it would seem, on the understanding that no social order was ever fixed or immutable.” In such societies, allegiance was given voluntarily, not forced.

      I reckon organisations would benefit from taking a similarly flexible view of allegiance, particularly since employees always have the choice to leave or worse, do the bare minimum to get by. If an organisation wants employees to bring their “whole selves” to work, then the organisation must create management structures and attitudes that will enable employees to do so freely. This is a the trick management must somehow pull off – to make people want to come to work and do their best…of their own volition.





      January 11, 2023 at 8:01 pm

      • There are multiple parts to Weber’s argument. I would note that Weber doesn’t just see the state and politics as legitimised through coercion. And he does not see such coercion as without cost “Whosoever contracts with violent means for whatever ends­… ­­is exposed to its specific consequence”.

        I am less interested in his description of the state than I am in his description of the role of politician – esp. towards the end where he talks about “Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.” The politician for Weber is double – politics is both a calling and a career. It requires charismatic leadership and administrative grind, an ethic of ultimate ends and an
        ethic of responsibility, both a desire for selfish advancement and a selfless desire to serve. It is this double bind that the change agent must inhabit.

        The “slow boring of hard boards” is, I think, an analogy that most change agents can relate to.

        Liked by 1 person

        Matt M

        January 11, 2023 at 8:24 pm

        • Agree entirely. Perhaps the double bind – for both politicians and change agents – is a consequence of the structure of modern states and organisations. But that then leads to an interesting chicken / egg problem.



          January 12, 2023 at 4:18 am

  2. I would note that your phrase “perceptions of change” could also be called, using another word that you like to use but that doesn’t appear in this post, “sensemaking about change”.

    In addition to the organizational change management literature, another field that has extensive theoretical and empirical research and practical principles for sensemaking about change is the counseling/psychotherapy (call it “therapy” for short) literature, where many of the same themes appear, such as the term “reframing” (and synonyms) and the tension between trying to facilitate people’s sensemaking about change in directive versus nondirective ways. For example, therapist Carl Rogers famously emphasized nondirective therapy, and later Stephen Rollnick and William R. Miller took Rogers’ therapy method and made it somewhat more directive, and called it motivational interviewing, intended for those people for whom nondirective therapy would be irresponsible.

    Another common theme between the organizational change and therapy literatures is the concept of decisional balance, which is a rough schematic approach to sensemaking in terms of pros and cons, or reasons and incentives for and against change. One of the major therapy models is the transtheoretical model of change (Prochaska et al.), which, in part, describes how decisional balance changes across the early stages of change and what facilitating processes are involved.

    There is a clear connection to IBIS, since pros and cons also feature prominently in IBIS: therapy involves working with a person’s implicit issue map, whereas organizational change involves working with many people’s implicit issue maps. Dialogue mapping helps to make all of that sensemaking explicit and public.

    Your description of the student who was unsure of herself and then changed her mindset and achieved success seems to correspond well to psychologist Carol Dweck’s now-famous distinction between a fixed mindset (about abilities) and a growth mindset, which are different meanings or beliefs or attitudes about learning and change.

    Thanks for another great post, Kailash!



    January 11, 2023 at 6:08 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: