Rethinking Commitment to Change

By Jim Selman and Layton Fisher

Disappointed with your company’s efforts to change? In this article, originally published in the Journal of Management Inquiry (September 1992), Layton Fisher interviews Jim on what we need to unlearn and what’s missing to have people learn to trust themselves and participate authentically with each other in a world that is inherently uncertain.

Layton Fisher:      Jim, one of the things I’d like to inquire into is the apparent level of frustration among managers in bringing about changes in the way we really operate our businesses. We’ve observed a succession of concepts such as quality, service, continuous improvement, and excellence introduced into our organizations over the last dozen or 15 years, often accompanied by increasing levels of energy and costs going to “promote” success. And yet, with some exceptions, one would have to say that our capacity to bring about the kinds of changes these ideas are intended to produce have not taken place; they don’t meet expectations. The costs go up, but the productivity generally doesn’t.

Jim Selman:      Well, I think that you have to acknowledge that there is something going on that we are not seeing having to do with the nature of change and, fundamentally, the structures within which we’re trying to accomplish what we say we’re trying to accomplish. I can remember back in the 1960s, for instance, an enormous amount of effort went into defining productivity. Accountants, consultants, managers, and academicians worked overtime trying to define terms like effectiveness, making all sorts of distinctions between efficiency and effectiveness. People had lots and lots of fairly clever insights in what was needed to improve productivity. But knowing what we needed didn’t somehow produce it!

I became interested in the work I’m doing when I began to observe that very, very committed, intelligent people could formulate reasonable answers and proposals and even design very elegant programs, but somehow when it came to implementation there was always a gap between intent and reality. If you start from that point of view, you must consider that the problem is not a shortage of answers, programs, good models, or even resources but that there’s something fundamentally inadequate in our approach to change that somehow blocks us from implementing the kind of changes we say are needed.

Now I think it’s also important here, Layton, to appreciate that all changes are not the same. There are some changes where we simply want to alter existing conditions, like designing a new advertising campaign or buying a new building. That’s a different kind of change from the kind of change that most corporations are now calling for; the kind of fundamental change in the way we think and work and behave, the kind of shift in context or paradigm that is demanded if we’re going to get the big payoffs from initiatives like total quality or customer service or whatever.

Full PDF Article


  • Knowledge Before Action
  • Commitment Before Action
  • A Paradox to Confront
  • Embracing Old & New Paradigms
  • Learning to Learn
  • Vision & Commitment

This 0.4 MB document is 16 pages long.