A Middle Ground approach to change

MITSloan Management Review, Winter 2013

In a recent MIT Sloan Management Review (Winter 2013) one of the articles describes what it calls a ‘Middle Ground’ approach to change. I thought it worth reporting as it has a couple of neat ideas about where to get ideas for change.

The middle ground in the article sits between a ‘big bang’ approach to change which is top down, heavy handed, and delivers a lot of change at once — an approach we recognise as unsuccessful; and a ‘pilot driven’ approach which tries a lot of small experiments but doesn’t settle on a solution to be implemented. The middle ground is characterised by building up a large change from studying the organisation and designing new best practice using ethnography. Here are the three ideas:

1. Work discovery

Instead of designing new processes, skill requirements, and culture from scratch the author suggests looking closely at the way the work is actually carried out now; compare that to how you think it should be carried out and look for disconnects in assumptions. Then use the surprises to uncover hidden assets and ideas. These then become the basis for designing change. This is an idea familiar to practitioners of lean systems thinking.

2. Using Best Practice

Instead of adopting industry or other organisation’s best practice; use these practices as a screen to look at your own current and planned practices to generate new ideas. Using other’s best practice to create even better practice tailored for your organisation.

3. Training as Testing

Instead of using training to lay down the law about how the changes will be implemented; use training to explore with the staff who will implement the change how to do the work. This will engage with the front line staff and bring their experience and creativity to build a better solution. This is a different way of thinking about training: as profound as the difference between telling and asking.


The author suggests that this approach will provide better and more effective change in complex organisations. The Health Service is a good example. Both as an organisation that appears to be very poor at doing change and as an organisation that needs to meet its change challenges differently. Do you have any examples where these ideas (singularly or together) have been tried?

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