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A Conversation with Warner Burke, Associate Editor for the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science

January 20, 2011

I sat down with Warner Burke, Professor of Psychology and Education and Coordinator for the Graduate Programs in Social Organizational Psychology at Teachers College in Columbia University. He was one of the keynote speakers at our 2010 Best of Organizational Development Summit.

What is the state of OD today?

OD has come a long way since its founding—circa 1959.   A lot has happened in that period of time and we have learned a lot.  But a lot of people in the field must think that what we know how to do is all kind of cataloged now and it’s all there, and so, we just go out and do it.

Warner Burke at Linkage's 2010 Best of OD Summit
Warner Burke at Linkage's 2010 Best of OD Summit

I’m making the argument today that we have still a lot of work to do. Work to do meaning, learning how to bring about change.  And I talk about the contrast between a tightly coupled system and a loosely-coupled system; and that OD is based primarily on trying to loosen up tightly coupled systems, bureaucracies, and the heavy dose of procedures and bossy behavior and all that kind of stuff.  So, we’ve really tried to alleviate those kinds of issues, and we’ve done pretty well with it, at least a lot of OD people think so.  But there are two other points about that which I am questioning.  One is we don’t really know much about the other side of that organizational structure issue that is the loosely-coupled system.  We don’t know how to work with those kinds of organizations very well.  There may be some of us in our field that really know how to do that well, but I’m not one of them.  I’m not experienced, but I find it difficult to know how to work with a network and tighten it up and so forth.

The issue about that today is that there are a lot of organizations that had decentralized over many decades now, and OD has made some contribution.  And so, decentralization has been the mantra of corporate America for a long time, but now, in tough times, we have to tighten it up—cutting costs and those kinds of things.  By tightening it up, it means that people who have had a lot of autonomy due to decentralization may have to face the fact that their autonomy is going to be taken away to some degree.  I think that’s very difficult.  How can you give somebody a lot of freedom and autonomy and then take it away?  I don’t think that’s very easy to do, much less workable.

We do need to know how to tighten up, so to speak, loosely-coupled systems.  An example of a loosely-coupled system is a university and another one in the business world is a strategic alliance.  That’s really kind of a loosely-coupled system in terms of how the work gets done and so forth.  So, how do you work with a strategic alliance?  And I don’t think we know a whole lot about that is what I’m arguing.  There is not enough new technology, and we need new technology in the field to help us do that kind of work; that’s kind of opposite way that OD grew up.

What kind of technology are you looking for?  What do you have in mind?

For example, if you are trying to deal with a network or a loosely-coupled system, part of the problem is how do you get people in the same room at the same time, and—so, today, we are on the edge of learning about how you work with virtual teams around the globe.  It’s in that arena that we need to know more.  How do I work with the center of the organization and the satellites of the organization at the same time?  And what we tend to do is not pay sufficient attention to all those satellite operations–those decentralized units way out there.

We concentrate most of our work at the center where we think the power base is, but in a loosely-coupled system, power is dispersed.  It’s not centralized.  And to get at issues of control and power, we have to spread ourselves much more than we’ve been accustomed to.  Easy to say—not so easy to do! Because I tried to do something like this myself in trying to work with a network-kind of organization and changed it temporarily, but it turned out it was only temporary.  Something like two years later, they’d gone right back to the way they were.

You mentioned a lot of startling statistics, and one of them is the success rate of change initiatives. Tell me a little bit about that.

Phil Harkins and Warner Burke
Linkage CEO Phil Harkins toasts Warner Burke at the 2010 Organizational Development Summit

If you look at change efforts in organizations around the United States, 70-percent of these kinds of efforts fail.  So, a 30-percent hit rate is not very good, is it? We need to do a whole lot better than that, so there is a lot of work to be done.  So, I don’t think people in the field of OD have anything to feel smug about.

Now, I’m not accusing people of feeling that way, but if they’re on the verge of it, get off the verge of that, for sure.  We don’t have any reason to be smug about it, that’s for sure.  We have had some success.  There is no doubt about it, but nowhere near what we need to do to make an impact on that lousy statistic, if you will.

As you look forward, how can OD practitioners increase the success rate of their change initiatives?

Learn new technology, and part of the problem is we haven’t had any new technology since 1987 in the field.  That’s when appreciative inquiry came into being, and took the field by storm.  In fact, Linkage has had sessions—and David Cooperrider’s been here more than once and there have been lots of sessions on appreciative inquiry. It’s really prevalent in the field, but that was 1987, and there hasn’t been anything since.  So, we need to develop new technology and especially bring about lasting change in an organization’s culture and how to work with, as I was saying before, loosely-coupled systems.

Another statistic that you pointed out was that one out of every two people in leadership positions fail. Talk to me about why that is.

Failure, in this case, means if you are the leader, you have certain objectives and goals that you are supposed to accomplish in a certain period of time.  The point is that 50-percent of the time people in your kind of position don’t accomplish it. And in some industries, like the healthcare industry, it’s closer to 60 percent failure rate.

We have two problems with respect to leadership.  One is selection, and the other is development.  We don’t do a very good job at all about selection.  In fact, if you look at how people are selected for leadership, it’s really a function of how well they did their particular job in terms of technology.  So, we choose people because they are super at marketing, and, therefore, you must be able to be a super marketing manager.  We choose people for the manager of sales because they’re a hotshot salesperson, and we choose people to be a head of manufacturing who was a super duper engineer.

And so, we assume that there is a relationship between technical expertise and success as a leader, and the correlation on that is zero.  There is no relationship whatsoever, but we tend to believe it.  And we continue to select people based on their technical expertise and assume that’s going to correlate positively with leadership.  It doesn’t. That’s a big problem.

Is technical expertise a prerequisite to being a good leader?

You have to know something about what you are talking about, yes, for sure.  So, if you are going to head up a sales force as the leader, you do need to know something, but you don’t have to be the most leading expert in the group.  You just have to know enough that you can talk to people and understand what they are saying to you and so forth.  So, being an effective leader is all about dealing with people.  It is not about dealing with things and technology, per se.

But you will not have credibility with the people that you are trying to lead unless you do know the language, unless you do know something about what it is that they are dealing with.  That’s true for me.  I’m a department chair.  I’m Chair of the Department of Organization and Leadership, which has six different programs in it.  I do not have to be an expert in all six programs. I’m an expert in one of them, but not the other five, but I do need to have some understanding of what those other five are and be able to talk intelligently with the faculty.  But the faculty, those are the pros.  My job is to get the best out of them, not to direct them, in terms of how they are going to do their work.

If technical expertise isn’t the criteria we should be using in selecting our leaders, what is?

Emotional intelligence is probably at the top of the list because the two major factors that seem to cause failure both start with an A.  One is called arrogance, and the other is called abrasiveness.  We don’t like people who are arrogant, and we are not likely to follow them.  And we don’t particularly like people who come and say things that are very insulting to us and so forth.  We are not likely to follow.  In fact, we are likely to sabotage their efforts.  Those are the two big As that lead to leadership failure.  Another cause of failure is not taking up one’s authority sufficiently and making decisions and leaving people in the lurch and frustrated.  And then, a final reason is circumstances.  Let’s be clear—when failure occurs on the part of a leader, it’s not always completely the leader’s fault.  The market changed, new technology came in over which the leader had no control whatsoever.  So, circumstances do and can cause failure as well.

But for us in the field of OD and related fields, we must understand those qualities of a leader that lead to failure that are personal in nature.  We understand the circumstances, but we don’t fully understand all that business of arrogance and abrasiveness and so forth.  There are just a lot of people in positions of leadership that have an emotional intelligence score of about zero.  So, when people say that they are stressed at work and that the major factor that causes their stress is a bad boss, there is truth to that.  One of our major needs is to know how to develop leaders that are going to be competent in what they are doing—they are being charged to do, and that competence has to do with knowing how to relate with people.  We also have to be sure that we have some reasonable clarity about the difference between a leader and a manager.  Now, there’s overlap there.  That’s for sure.  But there’s enough difference that you don’t develop mangers and leaders quite the same way.  You can train people to be managers, and I don’t think you can train people to be leaders.  What you do to develop leaders is give them experiences that they can learn from, but you have to help them learn, and that’s what we call coaching and things of that nature.

As you look ahead to the next five years, 10 years, what do you see?

To some extent, the future should be rosy.  Not to be a Pollyanna here, but because I may be sounding like I’m contradicting myself.  There is a lot of work that needs to be done.  We don’t know enough that we need to know, but why I say that the future is bright is because the need is incredible.  The need to be able to come into an organization and help people to change things is paramount today and will be even more so in the next several decades.  So, it’s not as if there isn’t a need, and it’s not as if there must be expertise applied to it.  Seventy percent failure rate is unacceptable.  So, the hard work is ahead of us.  We still don’t know enough, but the bright side of that comment is there is plenty of work for us.

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