Lessons from Maverick: The Problem with Top-Down Driven Change

Peter Hunter

The book Maverick by Ricardo Semler is a narrative about a company identifying the need for a transformational change, then telling the story of how that change was executed. The example, however, falls short of being a paradigm on a number of fronts.

Ricardo Semler had the right idea and the right goal, but went about it the wrong way. The book is an eight-year litany of confrontation, bloody noses and sackings as Ricardo tried to force his employees to change.

He did not have the best people at the start, he had normal people. His workforce was exactly the same as any other workforce on the planet: they were average people, but they were all individuals.

He inherited the company from his father, a traditional authoritarian boss who demanded that it was done his way or the highway, and Ricardo had no idea how destructive his uncompromising Command and Control style of management was. His workforce was average and produced an average performance.

Ricardo's vision was that each employee was potentially exceptional, but it was their working environment that prevented them from being exceptional. His vision was to create the working environment that would allow his employees to be the best that they could be. This involved getting the managers out of the way to stop them from interfering with the ability of the workforce to perform and to give control of their lives back to the workforce.

The company, in those eight years, grew over 10 times— but the cost was the replacement of almost every single member of the management team.

The reason for this was that although the change was the right change, it was being driven by Ricardo from the top down. This made the workers and the middle management resist what was happening, because they were being told what they had to do.

When you tell a human being what to do, whatever it is, the act of telling automatically generates resistance to whatever it was they are told to do. It is not "What" that caused the resistance, in this case— it was just the act of "Being Told."

At the end of eight years, the employees were the same individuals, but the environment that had been created for them to work in allowed them to better engage. In turn, that allowed them to be exceptional and to produce exceptional performance.

Today, we recognize the problem of top-down driven change that Ricardo could not avoid. It lost Ricardo his whole management team and eight years of superhuman effort to drive through his changes.

We can see how, by allowing change to come from the bottom up, we can achieve the right kind of change and avoid the resistance created by top-down driven solutions.

Ricardo Semler did his best with the resources he had.

Now we know better: No matter how right the change being proposed, if it is driven from the top down, it will create the resistance that will cause it to fail.