Everything I Need to Know About Organizational Change I Learned in College

If that title isn’t an arrogant statement, I don’t know what would qualify. I’ve been out of college for almost two decades and I just realized the truth of this statement listening to the Smithsonian’s Michael Edson today. I started to realize it on slide 136 and it crystallized in my brain during the Question and Answer session.

It wasn’t college itself, but my Fraternity experience. The Fraternity was the most political environment I have ever been in during my life and I’m just now realizing how useful it actually was, aside from meeting most of my closest friends to this day.

I’m going to confine myself to examples raised in the talk for this post, but I’ve already thought of related items that I’ve captured for future posts.

It is a Tradition

Every pledge class is unique in the nature of its membership and influencing events. As such, the events/actions of any pledging period are sometimes modified within a standard framework.

For example, one pledge class was acting up and it was decided that they needed a kick in the pants. They were told to assemble at 8pm (after classes ended), in coat and tie (to impress the seriousness of the talk), and to arrive together exactly on time (allowing the Brothers to gather as a group beforehand). The talk worked and when the next pledge class had some minor issues, the talk was held again.

All of the sudden, it was a Tradition! It became scheduled weeks in advance so Brothers could clear their schedule. When it was suggested that a pledge class didn’t need the talk, the cries of “Tradition” were raised.

Brothers don’t know what had happened before their pledging experience. They assume that what they went through has been always done. You should have seen the look on their faces when they were informed that the talk had only been happening 3 years and not for decades.

This happens in organizations now. What people see when they join and enter an organization becomes their “Tradition”. When change comes, you don’t have to just overcome people natural resistance to change, you have to overcome the perception of the establishment.

As Peter Drucker observed in Innovation and Entrepreneurship (and Michael referred to in his presentation),

Management tends to believe that anything that has lasted for a fair amount of time must be normal and go on forever. Anything that contradicts what we have come to consider a law of nature is then rejected as unsound.

This is where history comes into play. Knowing your past and why things are done a certain way can facilitate change. It allows you to look at the root of a behavior so you can readily determine if the reasons still apply.

In essence, to meet the future (or today), it helps to understand your past.

We Are the Enemy

image This observation was made in the session during the Q&A part of the session. Younger members of the organization embrace new technologies. Taking technology out of the equation, newer members of any organization are typically the most energized and driven to enact change. Senior management can often see the need for change and direct that it happen, but they aren’t enacting the change.

Who enacts change? The middle tier. Us. Why do things fail? Because of us.

This also happened back in the day. Younger Brothers had all sorts of ideas on how to make things better, but they didn’t have the position or credibility to make significant changes, though there were exceptions. Older Brothers had been there, done that, and were pretty philosophical about the whole thing. They had seen change and realized that it was inevitable, making them more open and supportive. They also didn’t see the need to do much work for the change.

It fell to the middle tier, the “Clay Layer”. Everything was “Tradition”. They had the positions and weren’t inclined to make dramatic changes for fear of changing the nature of the Fraternity. There were also typically two different schools of thought on how to solve most problems.

Getting past this was simple, but time consuming. The successful ideas would be circulated and nurtured before a decision had to be made. The older Brothers made sure that the others knew that it wasn’t a massive change in the grand scheme of things.

It was all about communication and collaboration. Getting people to have ownership of an idea lead to greater adoption. Once you got the ringleaders of the middle ground to buy into the idea, it was a simple thing to enact change.

It is something that the U.S. Congress should try, but I digress.

Tying it Together


Organizations have immune systems and metabolisms.

The immune system is manned by Tradition and those that don’t want to fail because of trying something “new and unproven”. What I learned in college, and have seen work since, is that you can get past this defense with communication and understanding the Why of things and not just the What. Each metabolism is different so varying approaches must be taken.

So while “Everything” may have been a little strong in the title because I don’t have all the answers, these are battles that I, and many of you, were fighting before you realized you were fighting them. Things are on a larger scale now and the degree of change is greater, but the basic lessons are still relevant.

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