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Sternberg’s Theory of Organizational Change —What Minerals Are Government Agencies?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Bill Brantley
January 11, 2020

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and inventor of the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. I became familiar with his work on successful intelligence in the mid-1980s and have used successful intelligence as the basis for my training and development work.

It’s his research program on organizational modifiability that I find relevant in my work. As we enter the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, there are many ideas from the candidates on how to reform the federal government. Add to these plans the current administration’s President Management Agenda which promises sweeping reforms to the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget recently announced award winners for their Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. As in the past administrations, there are several reinventing-government programs underway.

Even with all the change efforts, success has been mixed. What makes an organizational change effort successful? How should governments approach the change process? There are many theories of change management so, what insights does Dr. Sternberg offer?

Organizational Modifiability

Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:

Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

Universities and government agencies have much in common. They have various sizes, serve different constituencies and are similar in the way their bureaucratic processes work. And like universities, government agencies also need to learn. Three prerequisites need to be present to build the agency’s learning capacity.

The first prerequisite is the ability to change. There are two reasons an organization cannot change: a lack of resources or culture of stagnation. The second prerequisite is that the organization must believe that it can change. Closely related to the organization’s belief is the third prerequisite, which is the courage to change.

Using these three prerequisites, Dr. Sternberg created a cultural framework for institutional learning and change. The framework assesses three factors:

  1. “How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
  2. “How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
  3. “What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?”

Using the values of, “Low,” or, “High,” for each question, Dr. Sternberg describes eight types of organizational cultures in terms of learning and willingness to change. For each of the eight types, he assigned a different mineral as a metaphor.

Organizational Cultures of Learning and Change as Minerals (These descriptions adopted from Organizational Modifiability).

“The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.

The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality.

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.”

Five Factors in Why Change is Hard

Even though Dr. Sternberg was describing universities, the above descriptions just apply to government agencies both in the federal, state and local governments. I have been on several change projects which purported to be diamonds in the rough but turned out to be opals or amber institutions.

According to Dr. Sternberg’s research, five factors determine how likely organizational change will happen. The first two factors are the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the change agent. If the change agent comes from outside the organization and does not appear to have the expertise for change management, the organizational stakeholders will resist change. I have seen this happen to numerous political appointees.

The third factor is who owns the change. If change is forced on the organization from the top without having the stakeholder groups buy-in to the change, the change effort will most likely fail.

The fourth and fifth factors concern the rate of change and the cultural compatibility of change. The organization and culture can only absorb so much change in terms of speed and the changing of existing cultural habits. As governments start a new round of change efforts, change agents would do well to consider the agency’s ability to learn and absorb the new change.


Author: Bill Brantley teaches at the University of Louisville and the University of Maryland. He also works as a Federal employee for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. All opinions are his own and do not reflect the views of his employers. You can reach him at http://billbrantley.com.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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