I’m going away! (5) – Top-down gene

Last time, I wrote that managers and consultants are insufficiently aware of the variety of recipes for organisational change.

Every episode, the TV show ‘I’m going away’ demonstrates some organisational gems. It shows us how, all at once, families move house, undergo a change in culture and overturn their business model. Successfully. Without top-down. It’s as if the top-down gene is switched on as soon as ‘I’m going away’ turns into ‘we are going away’ and someone takes on the role of manager or consultant.

Here’s a great recent example of this top-down gene regarding the change of culture in the Dutch Department of Defence: “The ‘culture of looking away’ at the Department of Defence (Trouw, 29/09/2017) which impedes a ‘culture of learning from your own mistakes’ (Trouw, 20/01/2018) is best approached directively and top-down. The interventions advised to the minister will be implemented ‘unabridged’, says the ND (20/01/2018).”


There are almost infinite recipes for change (read more here). However, not all change is the same. One recipe will make change taste better than another. And of course, you could put some chicken in a vegetarian recipe, but whether this is considered edible depends on the person eating it.

The main ingredient in top-down change, a very commonly used recipe for change, is the management that is in control and that has the to-be-achieved goal and the planning in mind. This recipe is then flavoured with a generous sprinkle of tell&sell, a large spoonful of directive leadership, not too stingy on the planning&control and PDCA processes, and then the sauce is thickened with Excel sheets.

However, changing a culture top-down only sounds appealing to a few. Apparently, it’s considered indigestible.

The army

And yet, after careful analysis, the top-down recipe is still put forward as a solution for changing the culture within the Dutch Department of Defence. The answer to the question of whether the army has any interest in this recipe is clear to me. No.

Even though the army is a highly hierarchical organisation, it still employs people, who have wishes, ideas, worries, status, pride, pain, grief and a need for safety. And people are not the same as Excel sheets or PDCA processes. It’s very likely that nothing relevant will change top-down.

So then why do the advisor and minister choose this plan of attack?

Do they not know any better? Do people think that people will look the other way because there are so little controls in place? Or because the military personnel are cutting corners when it comes to security? Does ‘I tell you what to do’ lead to the necessary change only because it is very logical that something needs to change and what that is? Does planning&control lead to the desired change in behaviour? Is tell&sell only chosen because time and money are scarce, and progress needs to be made quickly?

Fascinating. But I have no idea.