Stanford's James G. March is arguably the most prestigious living organizational theorist. We are reading his 1981 classic paper "Footnotes to Organizational Change" for my scaling up excellence doctoral class. There is one paragraph in this paper that is especially inspired, in the beautiful style of his, March is explaining (among other things) that what many people (including senior management) see as resistance and rigidity is actually proof of great flexibility and innovation -- but the resulting changes are often what any one group actors don't want or expect:
What most reports on implementation indicate, however, is not that organizations are rigid and inflexible, but that they are impressively imaginative (Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973; Bardach, 1977). Organizations change in response to their environments, but they rarely change in a way that fulfills the intentions of a particular group of actors (Attewell and Gerstein,1979; Crozier, 1979). Sometimes organizations ignore clear instructions; sometimes they pursue them more forcefully than was intended; sometimes they protect policymakers from folly; sometimes they do not. The ability to frustrate arbitrary intention, however, should not be confused with rigidity; nor should flexibility be confused with organizational effectiveness…There is considerable stability in organizations, but the changes we observe are substantial enough to suggest that organizations are remarkably adaptive, enduring institutions, responding to volatile environments routinely and easily, though not always optimally.
There is so much wisdom -- and also so much underlying evidence packed into this statement -- that I am going to devote a long time to discussing it with my students later today! My favorite line is "sometimes they pursue them more forcefully then intended." I once studied a large convenience store chain that spent millions of dollars trying to increase courtesy after the CEO had a temper tantrum about bad service her received in a store -- he was pretty shocked when he learned how strongly the company responded, as they rolled out a far larger a program than he expected, wanted, or believed would be useful!
I've always been interested in situations like this where small signals from powerful people result in much stronger reactions than they intend -- the opposite of resistance to change, if you will. And in this case it led them to scale up a program that was much bigger, expensive, and time-consuming than he ever intended.