Are Organizations Just Apartments Crammed With Junk?

Watching a show about apartments crammed with junk has made me think about the challenges of sustaining organizational change. The show is "Hoarders" on A&E, a reality series that documents people whose compulsive acquisition of stuff has made their houses uninhabitable and their lives chaotic. One recent episode featured Dale, a man at risk of losing his apartment if he doesn't clear out the clutter and bring his living space up to code.  Dale, an avid dumpster diver and collector of art objects, has so packed his apartment with his finds that he has created a fire hazard -- and yet, he can't stop himself from acquiring more stuff.

The climax of the episode comes during a confrontation between the two professionals enlisted to help Dale: Christina the professional organizer and Dr. Moore the clinical psychologist.  Christina is pushing Dale to make decisions about getting rid of his stuff, and to accept responsibility for the way he has neglected the items he says he cares about so deeply.  Dr. Moore is growing increasingly concerned about Dale's mental state and his willingness to continue with the change process as Christina pushes and pushes.

Dr. Moore confronts Christina and basically says, "Your job is to clean out people's apartments, and my job is support people as they change."  Dr. Moore argues emphatically for "balance" between the two goals if Dale is to see any success at all.

The episode ends as Dale enters his newly clean and uncluttered apartment, ecstatic with the possibility of a new life.  We are also left with Dr. Moore's warning that if Dale doesn't get long-term counseling, the clutter will soon return.   It's a scary thought, knowing where Dale has been.

This made me wonder, as leaders initiating organizational change, how much are we just trying to clean out apartments and how much are we supporting organizations to achieve sustainable change?

Theorist Edgar Schein identifies three components of organizational culture: artifacts (the things we see), espoused values (the things we say we believe) and tacit assumptions (the often unexamined beliefs we take for granted).

Like Dale, many of our organizations are existing in spaces crammed with broken "stuff" we feel very attached to:  our lopsided org chart, our outdated diversity policy, or our serpentine process for ordering supplies.  These are the artifacts of our cluttered organizational lives.  Relatively speaking, it is not that hard for a focused leader or change consultant to sweep these away.

After the organization is swept clean, it is also relatively easy to take up a new mantra associated with the changes -- at least for a little while.  As we saw Dale exuberantly embracing his newly clean apartment, many organizations will at first luxuriate in the feeling of spaciousness that follows a change process.  Like Dale, organizations will espouse -- often quite publicly -- the values associated with their new way of being.

Much harder to change are the tacit assumptions that facilitated our need for change in the first place. This is Dr. Moore's plea to Christina: "Don't be so committed to emptying the apartment that you forget the person who created this mess in the first place."  This is where change leaders must ask the tough questions to uncover what the people in an organization really believe.  That is the place from which sustainable organizational change can occur.

The truth is, most organizational change efforts -- and I would guess most de-hoarding interventions -- ultimately fail.  Volumes of organizational literature have been written on why this is so.  The story of Dale presents a powerful metaphor for what we are up against when we seek to change organizations, and why simply cleaning house is not enough.