Six Batteries of Change - Book Review by Don Kennedy

15 Aug 2018 9:00 AM | Tricia Simo Kush (Administrator)
Six Batteries of Change by Peter De Prins, Geert Letens, Kurt Verweire. Lannoo Publishers, ISBN 9789401444569. 240 pages. Hardcover $45.20 USD, €34.99, ebook €27.99


It has been a beef of mine that many management studies look at successful companies and try to figure out best practice based on what these top performers do. If you hear that (hypothetically) 75% of successful companies have a matrix organization and 25% have a hierarchical structure, you may think a matrix is for you. However, it is difficult to get a lot of data on the companies that struggle whereas they like to advertise success. With my example, if you hear that 95% of the poor performers have a matrix versus 5% hierarchical, that provides a different picture.

I like that the authors of Six Batteries of Change have extensive experience consulting on change management programs. Geert Letens is familiar to many readers as a former president of the American Society of Engineering Management and I like his practical and critical perspective of EM principles. This book is based on data collected from participants at 111 companies. Two people at the same company can have differing opinions on its performance and culture that makes you wonder if they are confused about where they work. This book recognizes this and therefore multiple sources at each organization were used. They also recognize the different perspectives (or realities) of workers on the floor versus the planners in the “ivory tower.” By having these multiple inputs and a diverse range of sizes and business types they draw from, we are presented with a nice spectrum of traits of those that are successful and those that struggle with transforming their business.

During my career, six particular companies stand out that would have benefited from this book. All six could see that they needed to change or fail. Three talked about “burning platforms” but continued on their downward trajectory and closed shop. The other three initiated formal cultural change programs but these fizzled out prior to them closing for business. Unlike much of the literature I have read, this book generally agrees with my views on organizational culture and change.

I was in a meeting recently with directors who were reviewing a new program. As mentioned in this book, executives are busy and do not want to be bombarded with too many concepts. The key to getting buy-in is to have a few fairly simple points and to repeat them in a variety of ways, driving home the message. For implementing change successfully, the authors developed a concept of relating behavioral characteristics to energy levels in a battery. These are put in a grid with one axis for the often competing motivations in people: the emotional and the rational. The other axis separates the strategic policies needed to create proper alignment from the operational procedures to assure solid execution at the ground level. As was recognized at least as far back as the Hawthorne Experiments of the late 1920s, good ideas can fail if improperly implemented and yet irrational, counterintuitive plans can have positive results if rolled out in the right way to appeal to the workers. Hence, we are presented with a framework of six categories of batteries (or energy levels) that will lead you to greater chance of success when these batteries are properly topped up. The book provides examples of both good and poorly charged batteries in companies familiar to many readers, such as Yahoo, Nokia and ING. It provides symptoms of good and poor cultures and steps for charging the batteries in areas that are low, establishing an architecture for positive change.

I started out by reading Chapter 9 first as check for the book’s usefulness as a quick reference or as a refresher. I was able to follow the concepts easily without having to rely upon any complicated or specialized vocabulary built in the earlier chapters. I liked that there was a definite lack of prescriptions for success, since the authors recognize that organizations are now in a world that is VUCA - volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. They also recognize that change is not achievable through the actions of a small group and it must be driven throughout the organization. I have painfully watched my former employers bring on a small group of experts tasked with somehow fixing the organization’s ills under a two-month contract, which goes a long way to explaining why they are former employers.

Many people who will read this will be somehow connected to a cultural transition program within their organization. Using this book to help guide the process will be a smart move.

Dr. Kennedy has been a regular attendee of the ASEM conference since 1999, with particularly good participation at the informal late evening "discussions" (sometimes making it difficult to get to the morning plenaries). He has spent much of his time working on large construction projects in remote areas, lecturing at a few universities, and is now trying his hand in an unfamiliar role as a director of engineering in R&D.

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