The Experimental Schools Project provided funds for comprehensive educational changes in ten participating rural school districts. It also placed anthropologists on each site to carefully document the experiences of the districts over a !ve-year period.
The !rst year’s planning was free of con”ict. But as plans became realities, hidden issues boiled to the surface. A Northwest school district illustrates a common pattern:
In the high school, a teacher evaluator explained the evaluation process while emphasizing the elaborate precautions to insure the raters would be unable to connect speci!c evaluations with speci!c teachers . . . Because of the tension the subject aroused, he joked that teachers could use the list to “grade” their own [forms]. He got a few laughs; he got more laughs when he encouraged teachers to read the evaluation plan by suggesting, “If you have !fteen minutes to spare and are really bored, you should read this section.” [This was] followed by nervous and derisive questions and more laughter (Firestone, 1977, pp. 174–175).
The superintendent got up to speak shortly afterward:
. . . he was furious. He cautioned teachers for making light of the teacher evaluators . . . Several times, he repeated that because teachers did not support the [project] they did not care for students. “Your attitude,” he concluded, “is damn the children and full speed ahead!” He then rushed out of the room . . . As word of the event spread through the system, it caused reverberations in other buildings as well (ibid.).
After the heated exchange, the gloves came off. Con”ict between the administration and teachers intensi!ed. The issue was broader than evaluation. Teachers were angry about the entire project. Parents became concerned. Soon the school board got involved and reduced the superintendent’s authority. Rumors that he might be !red further undermined his authority.
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Such scenarios are common to change initiatives. As changes emerge, different camps form around supporters, opponents, and those who prefer to wait and see. Players avoid or smooth over differences until con”ict explodes in divisive battles. Coercive power, rather than legitimate authority, may determine the victor. Often, the status quo prevails and change agents lose.
From a political perspective, con”ict is natural. People manage quarrels best through processes of negotiation and bargaining, in which they hammer out settlements and agreements. If ignored, disputes explode into street !ghts—no rules, anything goes. People get hurt, and scars linger for years.
Arenas with rules, referees, and spectators are alternatives to street !ghts. Arenas create opportunities to forge divisive issues into shared agreements. Through bargaining, sup- porters of the status quo and those bringing innovative ideas arrive at compromises. Grafting new ideas onto existing practices is essential to successful change. An astute hospital administrator said, “The board and I had to learn how to wrestle in a public forum.”
Mitroff (1983) describes a drug company facing competitive pressure on its branded prescription drug from generic substitutes. Management split into three factions: One group wanted to raise the price of the drug, another wanted to lower it, and still another wanted to keep it the same but cut costs. Each group collected information, constructed models, and developed reports showing that its solution was correct. The process degenerated into a frustrating downward spiral. Mitroff intervened to get each group to identify major stake- holders and articulate assumptions about them. All agreed that the most critical stakeholders were physicians prescribing the drug. Each group had its own suppositions about how physicians would respond to a price change. But no one really knew. The three groups !nally agreed to test their assumptions by implementing a price increase in selected markets. The intervention worked by convening an arena with a more productive set of rules.
Successful change requires an ability to frame issues politically, confronting con”ict, building coalitions, and establishing arenas for negotiating differences into workable pacts. One insightful executive remarked: “We need to confront, not duck, and face up to disagree- ments and differences of opinions and con”icting objectives . . . All of us must make sure— day in and day out—that con”icts are aired and resolved before they lead to internecine war.”
CHANGE AND LOSS Symbols tap a deep reservoir of meaning, belief, and faith: national “ags, the cross or crescent, fraternity or sorority pins, team mascots, wedding bands—even the symbols of companies and their products.
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In a classic 1980s case, the venerable Coca-Cola company introduced New Coke. It seemed to make good business sense. America’s cola wars—a battle between Coke and Pepsi—had intensi!ed. A head-to-head taste test, the “Pepsi Challenge,” was making inroads because many avowed Coke drinkers preferred Pepsi in blind tasting. Pepsi won narrowly in a Coke counterchallenge held at its corporate headquarters in Atlanta. Coca-Cola executives became even more nervous when Pepsi stunned the industry by signing Michael Jackson to a $5 million celebrity advertising campaign.
Coke struck back with one of the most startling announcements in the company’s 99- year history—Old Coke was gone:
Shortly before 11:00 AM [on Tuesday, April 23, 1985], the doors of the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center opened . . . The stage was aglow with red. Three huge screens, each solid red and inscribed with the company logo, rose behind the podium and a table draped in red. The lights were low; the music began: “We are. We will always be. Coca-Cola. All-American history.”
Robert Goizueta [CEO of Coca-Cola] came to the podium . . . [he] claimed that in the process of concocting Diet Coke, the company “avor chemists had “discovered” a new formula. And research had shown that consumers preferred this new one to old Coke (Oliver, 1986, p. 132).
The rest is history. Coke drinkers overwhelmingly rejected the new product. They felt betrayed; many were outraged:
Duane Larson took down his collection of Coke bottles and outside of his restaurant hung a sign, “They don’t make Coke anymore.” . . . Dennis Over- street of Beverly Hills hoarded 500 cases of old Coke and advertised them for $30 a case. He almost sold out . . . San Francisco Examiner columnist Bill Mandel called it “Coke for wimps.” . . . Finally, GuyMullins exclaimed, “When they took old Coke off the market, they violated my freedom of choice— baseball, hamburgers, Coke—they’re all the fabric of America” (Morganthau, 1985, pp. 32–33).
Bottlers and Coca-Cola employees were aghast: “By June the anger and resentment of the public was disrupting the personal lives of Coke employees, from the top executives to the company secretaries. Friends and acquaintances were quick to attack, and once-proud
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employees now shrank from displaying to the world any association with the Coca-Cola company” (Oliver, 1986, pp. 166–167).
Coca-Cola rebounded quickly with Classic Coke. Misreading your customers is not usually a recommended route to better results, but the company’s massive miscalculation led to one of the strangest serendipitous triumphs in marketing history. A brilliant stratagem, if anyone had planned it.
What led Coke’s executives into such a quagmire? In their zeal to compete with Pepsi, Coke’s executives overlooked a central tenet of the symbolic frame: The meaning of an object or event can be far more powerful than the reality. What people believe trumps the facts of taste tests. Strangely, Coke’s leadership had lost touch with their product’s signi!cance to consumers. To many people, old Coke was a piece of Americana linked to cherished memories. Coke represented something far deeper than just a soft drink.
In introducing New Coke, company executives unintentionally announced the passing of a beloved American symbol, but they were not the !rst or last executives to misread their own symbols. In 2010, the clothing retailer Gap unveiled a new logo that was intended to signal a change in Gap’s image from “classic, American design to modern, sexy, cool.” Instead, the logo encountered “a chorus of caustic criticism” (Weiner, 2010) and died in a week. Two years later, the University of California crashed into a similar wall of criticism and quickly retreated after a new logo designed to be a simple, bold expression of California identity was savaged as corporate, shallow, and ugly. Symbols create meaning and generate emotional attachment (Jung, 1964). When one is destroyed or replaced, people experience feelings akin to those at the passing of a spouse, child, old friend, or pet. When a relative or close friend dies, we feel a deep sense of loss (Kübler-Ross, 1997; Marris, 2016). We harbor similar feelings when a computer operating system replaces old procedures, a logo changes after a merger, or a new leader replaces an old one. When these transitions take place in the workplace rather than in a family, feelings of loss are often denied or attributed to other causes.
Rituals of Loss Signi!cant change often triggers two con”icting responses. The !rst is to keep things as they were, to replay the past. The second is to ignore the loss and plunge into the future. Individuals or groups get stuck in denial or bog down vacillating between the two responses.
For much of the twentieth century, AT&T had a near monopoly of telephones in the United States. Then, in 1982, a federal judge forced AT&T to divest its local phone
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operations. Four years later, an executive commented: “Some mornings I feel like I can set the world on !re. Other mornings I can hardly get out of bed to face another day.”Nurses in a hospital’s intensive care unit, caught in a loss cycle for 10 years following their move from an old facility, !nally determined the cause of their hard-to-pinpoint anguish. Loss is an unavoidable byproduct of improvement, particularly for those who are the target of someone else’s change initiative. As change accelerates, executives and employees become mired in endless cycles of unresolved grief.