An Interview with Dr Ichak Adizes

By Michael Mitchell

Will be published in the March, 05 issue of the
“Executive Excellence”


In my career as freelance writer and journalist, I have met and interviewed dozens of management consultants. Most have been exceptionally bright people and listening to them expound on their various consulting strategies has been quite an education.

While they have all been credible, a few stood out in terms of the insight, passion and dedication they brought to their discipline. None of them, however, made the impression on me that Dr Ichak Adizes, CEO of the Adizes Institute, did one afternoon when I visited him at his corporate headquarters in scenic Santa Barbara, CA. (Dr Adizes was chosen as one of the top 30 leadership consultants by Executive Excellence Magazine in 2004.)

This was not exactly the environment where you would expect to find one of the country’s most successful consulting organizations headquartered. On the other hand, the bucolic setting was perhaps an appropriate metaphor for the holistic approach Dr Adizes and his associates employed to help organizations and governments around the world solve problems and adapt to change.

The Adizes Institute is a magnificently restored estate camouflaged as a corporate headquarters. The grounds are beautiful, thick with enormous trees and flowering bushes. I was immediately taken with the serenity of the setting. The gently meandering path that led to the front door gave little indication of the beehive of activity that was taking place behind that portal. Obviously, people were working, not meditating, here.

Ichak Adizes is not the prototypical corporate CEO. He is diminutive, casually dressed and scholarly looking, sort of a cross between Alan Greenspan and your college history professor. Of course, since he has been a professor at several leading Universities ( Columbia , Stanford, UCLA), his intellectual demeanor comes as no surprise. As he glides out from behind his desk to shake hands, a huge smile that looks as though it belongs on a much larger person engulfs his face and I am instantly at ease with him. We sit down and what proves to be one of the most enlightening interviews of my thirty-year career begins.

The Practice

Mitchell: Your clients refer to the Adizes methodology as completely different from other consulting disciplines they have experienced. Can you explain what makes the Adizes methodology unique?

Adizes: Many things make it different. For one, it is multidisciplinary. Consulting firms are typically composed of people who specialize in a single area or function; they are content oriented, IT, finance, etc. Those that are process oriented usually are not very well versed in the content. They are trained as organizational psychologists or in human behavior and group dynamics. So again they are functionally or subsystem specialized. We on the other hand have top people from a variety of disciplines: psychologists, economists, attorneys, MBAs, and former business executives. All very knowledgeable about business and also what it takes to lead change successfully. So they are both content and process competent.

One reason we are all able to work together effectively is that we have a common language — the Adizes methodology for leading accelerated, sustainable change without causing destructive conflict. An analogy might be a company with multiple computers on different operating platforms that cannot communicate with one another. We have the “software” that allows all these different operating systems to talk among themselves, to take advantage of their indigenous competitive advantage; their totality becomes much stronger as result.

An individual cannot change an organization; it takes an organization to change an organization. Some companies employ coaches, but sending a coach into an organization to interview a few people, write a report or offer advice to any individual — even the CEO — will not accomplish much…perhaps a little personal growth. It takes a multidisciplinary team working together to provide the critical holistic component to achieve meaningful organizational change.

Mitchell: How do you go about identifying and addressing organizational problems?

Adizes: Most companies do not have a clear picture of their problem. If they did, it’s likely they would have found a solution themselves. We do not necessarily accept the description of the problem a client gives us. We utilize a methodology that has been tested for 30 years, among thousands of companies worldwide, ranging from smaller business units to multinational conglomerates, and including virtually every industry. Every one of these organizations has a life cycle and at each stage of their lifecycle, they have problems that are normal. They may also experience problems that are abnormal or even pathological. I discuss this in my book, Managing Corporate Lifecycles, published by Adizes Institute. This researched theory enables our clients to determine and better focus on which problems to solve and which to ignore, and to create a sensible plan of action that works.

A physician does not give a child the same medicine as an adult. Our prescription — the plan of action — is contingent upon where the organizational patient is on its life cycle, so our medicine works better and faster because it is appropriate. We also examine all the relevant factors within an organization — personalities, management style, structure, processes, finances, etc. — so we are able to identify the true causes of the illness, which may not necessarily be where the client tells us the pain is. Clients, by and large, focus on problem manifestations, not causes.

The real danger in a single discipline approach to problem solving is the old story that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So if a consultant is trained in strategic planning, they are almost certainly going to tell a company they must define their goals and strategy before doing anything else. And their advice is likely to be completely wrong because the client cannot clearly define their goals and strategy if their structure is all messed up. Consultants tend to work within a sequence that says strategy drives structure. That’s not so. It may sound correct and perhaps it should be that way, but it is not reality. The reality is that structure causes strategy.

Companies that engage a consulting firm to restructure their organization often run into employee problems, forcing them to call in another consultant to deal with the unions, followed by still another consultant to deal with the financial restructuring that is now out of alignment with the strategic advice they received from the original consultant!

I once saw a cartoon in the lobby of a medical building. It listed the names and specialties of the various doctors: A cardiologist, dermatologist, urologist, etc. The last was Dr Goldberg, whose specialty was side effects .

Our treatment of the organization is holistic. We diagnose the entire enterprise, and if our treatment requires specialists, with the agreement of the client, we will bring them in and effectively coordinate their work with ours.

Mitchell: What specifically do you look for?

Adizes: Organizations are like motorboats. Tell me the relative strength of the various engines and I’ll tell you which direction the boat is going to take. Regardless of what happens on the deck, no matter how much someone topside screams “Change direction,” the engine — or in the case of an organization — the power structure, determines what direction the boat will take. That’s why the majority of strategic planning has a very low percentage of implementation; the power structures reject the changes unless it suits them, and it will only suite them if there is no change.

At Adizes, the first thing we do is to relax “the engines,” make them changeable, more flexible. Once that’s accomplished, we can move forward with a strategic plan as to what direction the boat should take. We do not begin with the strategy but rather with the power structure that enables the strategy.

Most consultants work sequentially. They define the strategy then recommend the structure that ostensibly will deliver the strategy. That goes nowhere. We work in a more interactive or interchangeable way regarding the strategy and structure. Instead of the typical linear approach with strategy coming first and driving structure, we start with an inverted V or triangle. At the base of one side is Strategy; at the other is Structure.

We start on the strategy side, asking about the mission and nature of the organization. Then we move to the structure side and ask what basic organizational structure template makes sense for that mission? This is not the final chart, only the first draft. It induces the power structure to accommodate the mission. They usually accept the discussion and its conclusions because as yet, no change has been recommended. It is like anesthesia prior to surgery.

We then move back to strategy and start working in more detail, followed by moving back to structure for more details. We continue moving back and forth, much like climbing a ladder one step at time. Eventually, the two sides meet at the top. By then it is clear that the structure has to change if the mission and strategy are to be implemented. And please note we did not develop the strategy, the mission or the structure. The top management of the company did this all by themselves. Our role was merely to lead the discussion, provide the tools for management to deal effectively with the issues, and create a safe environment to prevent the discussion from becoming destructive. We provided both the tools and the process; the client provided the content. That is why we can work in any industry in any country. And we do.

Because we provide both the tools and the process, we are unique among consultants. We represent a major change in consulting, a paradigm shift in the methodology for leading change effectively.

Mitchell: Your methodology seems so logical. Why haven’t other consultants moved in this direction?

Adizes: Other consultants avoid this process because it is time consuming for the client and thus more difficult to sell. And they are afraid — or don’t know how to — transform the power structure, how to lead this participative process. It is just too much political risk for them to deal with. But that is exactly our strength; we know how to handle the power structures without getting hurt or getting anyone hurt. We continuously adjust strategy and structure, fine-tuning each many times in small increments until they fit together. The beauty of all this is that the organization becomes accustomed to change, albeit small ones, versus a major upheaval every 5 or 10 years. Continuous small changes in process and structure on a continual basis are far better and more productive. This is one of the principle reasons why Adizes is different; the interdependency between structure and process/strategy expressed in the way we achieve systematic changes in an organization.

Mitchell: Is that primarily what sets you apart from other consultants?

Adizes: That and some other important differences. Most consultants are singularly disciplined and do not approach problems with our totality in a sequential, systemic way, bringing strategy and structure together using continuous change. But another difference is that we transfer the technology to the client so they can continue the continuous change process without Adizes necessarily being involved on an ongoing basis. Others give the client advice but typically, must return later with additional advice because over time, their original recommendations become obsolete. We transfer the technology, the management leadership tools I was referring to before, teach the client what we know, give them the tools so they can continuously apply them and adapt to the changing environment once we leave. We eliminate the need for the client’s continued dependency on us. We are actually teachers; we teach the client how to use the tools and self-monitor them as they grow and change.

Mitchell: You mentioned other important differences.

Adizes: The consulting industry is undergoing significant changes. A medical analogy would be the patient who goes to his doctor with a problem. The doctor, with many years of training, diagnosis the illness and prescribes a treatment which the patient follows but does not have to understand. This relationship represents empowerment of the medical profession and disempowerment of the patient. That is now changing, due to patient’s rights, better patient edu cation and the like. Nevertheless, the established protocol that the doctor is superior by nature of his knowledge and the patient is inferior has been maintained. At Adizes, we are transforming consulting into a methodology that is therapeutic.

Consider psychotherapists. They do not tell you what to do but rather eliminate barriers or blockages to enable you to do what you realize you should. The same is true of homeopathic medicine; it removes blockages to the flow of energy so the body can take care of itself.

We do same thing.

Mitchell: So you remove the barriers that prevent organizations from healing themselves? It sounds so simple when you describe it that way, but I imagine it must be a more complex process. Can you elaborate?

Adizes: When a consultant — whether he is Peter Drucker or someone else — listens to a client’s problems and prescribes a treatment, the answers belong to the consultant, not the client. The client merely has the option of following the advice or not.

The Adizes methodology is the reverse of that. We ask the questions and the client must come up with the answers. We’re like a psychotherapist, who does not provide the answers but rather knows what questions to ask and in what sequence to ask them. The process forces clients to come to their own “aha,” find their own roadmap, and help themselves find the light at end of the tunnel. In the same way, we know what questions to ask and in what sequence. (I cover this in great detail in my book, Mastering Change , also published by Adizes Institute. By the way, I have authored ten books that describe the theory on which the methodology to lead these changes is based, and the books have been translated into 24 languages, which indicates worldwide acceptance for the theory.) When we come to a barrier where a client has no answer, we give them tools to find the answer. If we recommend anything, it is only as a trial balloon. In this way, clients see and learn how to use the tools we provide. And in this way, the final solution to the problem is their own.

Mitchell: How different is it from coaching ?

Adizes: Management coaching attempts something similar by asking questions but the process is not holistic or multidisciplinary. The questions they ask are by and large of a psychological nature, and the focus is on the individual being coached. This assumes wrongly that by changing the individual they can change the organization. We work on the business of the organization, that is, what makes the organization operate successfully in a changing environment so that the individual will fit within the organization. You cannot change the organizational climate by changing the individual but if you change the organizational climate, you can change the behavior of the individual and that is what we do.

So while coaching may ask questions for the client to answer, which is a psychological treatment, they are treating the individual rather than the organization. They are employing psychological tools versus tools of a business and organizational nature. I’ve seen many coaches actually miss the problem because of their focus on psychodynamics and individual needs. What makes an individual operate better is not necessarily what makes an organization operate better.

Mitchell: But when you are asking questions, you have to talk to the right individuals within the organization, don’t you?

Adizes: Of course. One of the Adizes principles is People who row the boat do not rock the boat . So when there is a problem with the boat, we first ask “Who can rock this boat? Who can rock the solution, assuming we know what the solution is? What power pieces must be involved in order to implement the solution?

Ours is a holistic, systemic, structural, participative methodology whereby we bring in all the participants necessary for finding a solution. That’s unique among all consultants. Others may use pieces of what we do, but they may not be systemic. Those who are systemic are not structural. Some are structural but not multidisciplinary. We enjoy a remarkable rate of success — close to 100% — implementing organizational strategic changes.

Mitchell: Can you give me some examples?

Adizes: One of our clients grew from $150 million to $1.5 billion in sales in ten years without stumbling, and continued to grow into a $4 billion company without any dilution of ownership, just pure organic growth. We have testimonials from CEOs from around the world on our web site www: adizes .com.

We provided the tools and the process for a military electronics company to move into consumer and medical electronics, something they had been trying to do for years. With our tools and process, they succeeded in just months.

We helped Bank of America convert from being just a bank — and mostly retail — into a financial services institution.

We helped Salinas Group Mexico grow from $250 million capitalization to $3.5 billion capitalization.

These tools have also been used on a macro level. We helped organize the cabinet structure for Vicente Fox, the President of Mexico.

Mitchell: Does it always work?

Adizes: It does not work if the CEO is not committed to making changes along with his people, or if he makes decisions with outside consultants, then brings the “solution” into the company . We do all the planning and implementation of the changes with the people involved, and that requires a confident CEO who is not afraid to hear and even learn from people lower in the organization. It requires a CEO willing to invest the time, both personally and that of the appointed team, to deal with the problems; a CEO who does not outsource problem-solving and solution to outside consultants to save time only to end up with a disempowered management team. We have resigned clients where we felt CEOs were looking for a solution to be given to them or who refused to participate in the change.

Mitchell: Where have you applied your methodology?

Adizes : We have worked with companies in over 40 countries. We have offices with trained and certified associates in ten countries.

Mitchell: How long does it take to train and certify someone in your methodology?

Adizes: It takes someone about three years to be fully qualified, even if they were a CEO before joining us. All our associates undergo comprehensive training and must pass written exams before they are qualified to practice. They then practice under supervision for a year, similar to an internship. If they do well, they must pass an oral exam in front of all the certified associates who attend the annual Adizes international convention. They are then certified. To maintain certification they must take at least one course a year at the Adizes Graduate School , which is licensed to grant Masters and Doctoral degrees in the methodology.

Mitchell: How many Associates do you have?

Adizes: About 50 worldwide, some of whom have been practicing for over 20 years.

(To be continued…)

Michael Mitchell is a freelance writer covering national business and management issues.