Browning’s tough task (Transformation) guided by Kotter’s “8 Errors” framework

I must confess that when I first read the case of Peter Browning and Continental White Cap, I was perplexed. I find that Harvard Business Review cases are often straightforward: not that they are “easy”, but usually, by the end of the case, if one has recently read applicable/relevant management theory, there is a relatively clear approach that emerges, dictating the desirable best practice(s) that one should follow in the given scenario. This Case is different.

Browning faces a serious set of challenges with no obvious “right” path. He recognizes a need for transformation within Continental and White Cap, in particular, in order to weather and ideally to flourish an evolving market based on changing customer needs and competitive landscape. To ensure that White Cap will stay relevant, aligned with trends and even pioneering in the industry, he must identify, mobilize and inspire innovative and entrepreneurial employees who are unafraid of change and can navigate the ambiguities and risks of the future unknown.

At the same time, he faces a workforce that do not “acknowledge the need for change” to an established, successful 50-year business, and one that he suspects will be resistant to any new management approach, given a a “family-style culture characteristized by long-term loyalty… with long-standing traditions”. The outstanding reputation and well-respected tenure of his predecessors – from founder William White through Bob White and then onto Art Lawson – didn’t help; these leaders had faced important challenges of growth and expansion, but not the changing industry needs and technological & product competition Browning faced.
The case challenges us: how can Browning initiate and oversee this necessary and important business transformation without alienating the same loyal teams and customers that had made it successful?

Kotter’s 1995 framework offers many helpful and applicable guidance for Browning. As a seasoned, 20-year executive familiar with the culture and context of Continental, Browning is well-educated and well-prepared for this mission. He is certainly already knowledgeable about the theory behind Kotter’s points, and understands the “big picture” lessons including that the complete change process is long – a series of phases – and that he must be deliberate and strategic in all his actions.

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While all eight are important to consider throughout the transformation, the first of Kotter’s “errors” is the most critical for Browning to consider as he embarks upon his mission. Browning must absolutely establish a great sense of urgency and the need for change. This is a huge risk for White Cap, and where it is very likely to fail, early. As current employees recall the recent, strong, 50-year history of success and market leadership, Browning must find a way to communicate the real risk of impending crisis that will be created by complacency, lack of innovation, and increased competition, if not countered by change. To succeed, “change or die!” must be his sole message: heard, understood, and resonating throughout the company.

References

  1. Peter Browning at Continental White Cap (A). (1986) (Harvard Case)
  2. Kotter, J. P. (2007). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review, 85(1), 96-103.
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