Building failure into success?

Complex environments cannot be fully engaged and understood by holding faith with established routines and meanings as they require continuous updating (‘what’s the story here?’). This necessitates enabling an environment where such behaviours can thrive. Hence organisations need managers who reflect this through the organising of their visions and work practices, whilst also recognising the need to provide adequate support for their people.

Some might argue that management innovation is a particular form of organisational change that involves ‘a novel or unprecedented departure from the past’. Certainly sustainable organisational change requires convergent periods where structure, systems, controls and resources are directed towards increased alignment. However, organisational change without innovation is sustainability without purpose (long-term failure). Innovation requires ‘action persistence’ – commitment that ensures the plausibility of alternatives. Conversely, innovation without change is expediency without sustainability (short-term wins). Thus, these forces appear entirely non-rational and yet they define the dichotomy inherent in organisations such as Pearson.

The most significant clue to Pearson’s predicament is found in this brief quote [Pearson] ‘once reaped huge profits’. The foundation for failure was not at the point where it moved into ‘challenge’, but more the manner in which its leaders allowed redundancy to be ‘cemented’ into success, for fear of breaking a ‘winning (now outdated) formula’.

Reviving Pearson will take more than a wave of a magic wand. It has spun a tale of woe for as long as its many shareholders can remember, with seven profit warnings in as many years.

The British company once reaped huge profits from selling $200 textbooks through US university bookshops. Then, a decade ago, the market went into freefall. Pearson failed to grasp the growing anger on campuses over the high cost of its products and it underestimated how quickly students would turn to textbook rental services from Amazon and Chegg.