Change Matters

Growing up as a kid in East L.A., I had a lot of dreams. One was wanting to join the Boy Scouts. I remember spending hours browsing through a Scout manual I’d found one day on the street. I would imagine camping in the mountains, building a fire by rubbing sticks together, and eating the fish I’d caught from a roaring river. I’d use first aid tricks to mend someone’s twisted ankle with a brace I’d make from tree branches and a shoelace. Yes, I was a ready to be a Boy Scout!

It was a great imaginary world that would whisk me away from the busy and noisy city street just outside my bedroom window. When I heard a neighbor’s mother was organizing a Cub Scout troop, I joined. Eagerly, I awaited our first trek into the wilderness. And even though our first meeting only attracted four other kids, I knew we’d be eventually grow our troop to include many more participants. I remember the other three children were just learning to speak English so the troop mom would translate the Cub scout manual for them. I remember wondering why the manuals didn’t come in Spanish. In fact, I began to wonder why all the pictures of boys in the books didn’t resemble the kids in my troop. When I talked to other kids at school about joining, many had never heard of the Boy Scouts or Cub Scouts – and really had no desire to join anyway. I remember one kid telling me – “that’s only for White people anyway.” Eventually, our small troop disbanded and the dream was over.

These vivid memories were rekindled as a result of an article I read in the New York Times this morning. When I think about organizations that have resisted to change with the cultural and social environment of this country, I often think about the Boy Scouts of America. The article discusses some of the issues that have confronted the Boy Scouts over the years including a dwindling membership, a lack of diversity, and some legal battles. Ironically, the Boy Scouts is now making a big push to increase its membership by targeting young Hispanics around the country.   

Aside from their issues, the Boy Scouts is a perfect case study for organizations that resist change. Not because they weren’t paying attention but by choice. No organization is immune to its external environment – or change. Organizational change begins by questioning traditional frameworks and appreciating the growing importance of engaging the external environment. Many organizations choose NOT to change because they value their stable and conventional behavior –  they assume no unexpected surprises. Reliability is supplied by boundaries of responsibility, roles, and control. Individual behavior within the organization is directed by specific rules of engagement and interaction; there is no deviation from this narrow scope of expectations.

That many organizations still follow these “rules” can be unfortunate, and even today, they’re not hard to find.