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Riding the waves of change

Book cover

by Gareth Morgan, Jossey Bass Inc., 1988.


A key point of the book is that there are certain "fracture lines" in unfolding history after which things are never the same. The fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Chernobyl are examples. Identifying them helps managers to be prepared for a new environment and to develop new competences.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in June 1999)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

We aim to give enough information to enable readers to decide whether a book fits their particular concerns and, if so, to buy it. There is no substitute for reading the whole book and our reviews are no replacement for this. They can give only a broad indication of the value of a book and inevitably miss much of its richness and depth of argument. Nevertheless, we aim to open a window on to some of the benefits awaiting readers of management literature.)


Riding the waves of change is by a Toronto professor exported from this side of the Atlantic. His most famous book is Images of organisation. This book stimulates a way of looking at the future and charting the changes that lead to the envisioned future.

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Competences for managerial surfing

Gareth Morgan's title is based on a picture of a Hawaiian beach, with the waves of change rolling in the form of new technologies, markets, forms of competition, social relations, organisational styles and management ideas, etc. 'Like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean'.

Fig.1 below enables one to take in the theme of the book almost at a glance. From this it will be seen that the traditional lists of competences need updating to ensure business growth in today's environment. Gareth Morgan proceeds clockwise from 'Reading the Environment' and gives a chapter on each, concluding with two appendices about his 'C plan forums' (C = competence) and action research conferences on 'fracture lines'.

Fig.1            An overview of some emerging managerial competences

Developing contextual competencies

  • Building bridges and alliances.
  • Reframing problems to create new solutions.
  • Acting nationally and locally.
  • A new approach to social responsibility.
Arrows pointing to the emerging managerial competences

Reading the environment

  • Developing proactive mindsets.
  • Managing "from the outside in".
  • Positioning and repositioning skills.

Managing complexity

  • Managing multiple stakeholders.
  • Managing many things at once.
  • Managing transition.

Proactive management

  • Scanning and intelligence functions.
  • Forecasting and futurism.
  • Scenario planning.
  • Identifying "fracture lines".

Using information technologyas a transformative force

  • Developing new products and services.
  • New network concepts of organisation.
  • New work designs.
  • Real-time decision making.
  • Planning with evolution in mind.
  • Information management mindsets.
  • The key strategic role of software.

Leadership and vision

  • Using "vision" to frame action.
  • Communicating an actionable vision.

Skills of remote management

  • Helicoptering.
  • Managing through an "umbilical cord".
  • Promoting self-organisation.
  • Managing ambiguity.
  • Making specialist staff "user-driven".

Human resource management

  • Valuing people as key resources.
  • Developing abilities to relish change.
  • Blending specialist and generalist qualities.
  • Managing in an environment of equals.

Promoting creativity, learning and innovation

  • Developing an appropriate corporate culture.
  • Encouraging learning and creativity.
  • Striking a balance between chaos and control.

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Tuning into the future

Morgan quotes from his forums and conferences throughout the book beginning in his chapter on 'Reading the Environment' with one from a CEO who described the world as a 'trading village'. organisations can no longer feel secure in their niches. There is no guarantee that any set of products, services, skills, technologies or markets will remain relevant. So a key management competence is the ability to 'read' what is happening in the world and identify 'pivotal changes'. CEOs and their management teams must develop skills and mindsets that enable them to recognize significant trends and come to grips with their significance for the future. Phrases used at the forums were of managers 'tuning into the future' and 'engaging in perception gathering twenty-four hours a day'.

Morgan makes the point that it is not enough to extrapolate from what is happening at present. Traditionally strategic planning tended to do this. John Naisbitts' Megatrends.(1982) has been criticised for doing this, though he got much of it right. However, Gareth Morgan's key concept of 'fracture lines' is a useful one in safeguarding against excessive reliance on the present in reading the future. It still picks up from the present but with concentration on the occurrence of forces coming together, gathering momentum and having an ability to reshape the future of entire industries or services and their constituent organisations.

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Fracture lines

In his seminars Morgan gets managers to identify and understand these emerging 'fracture lines' which will define the focus for change. These are breaks in continuity which may spring from specific events and groups of events, or technological or social developments, eg

  • A Bhopal or Chernobl.
  • A dramatic rise or fall in the price of oil.
  • A key breakthrough in an aspect of research or technology.
  • Radical demographic shifts.
  • Free trade legislation or some industry specific legislation on regulation or deregulation.

Alpha Piper, the Channel Tunnel, the fall in the number of young people looking for jobs in the 90s, the debates in Britain about health and education also come to mind.

But Morgan also cautions us that less obvious fracture-lines maybe developing quickly. He illustrates them from 'Just in Time' (JIT) methods and the issues surrounding chemical-intensive agriculture (particularly topical with current warning about pesticides and health). He shows how JIT, introduced to keep inventory down, transforms the activities in many aspects of manufacturing and related service industries, with greater dependence on interorganisational networks and responsibility accepted at all employee levels.

These two examples suggest scope for task forces and similar teams to analyse 'breakpoints' (an alternative phrase to 'fracture lines') in the search for opportunities and to spot them early.

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To 'read the environment' effectively requires certain competences and even more significantly certain 'mindsets'. The development of the same competences is needed throughout the enterprise. A look at Fig.1 above will illustrate this and the rest of the book highlights them. So a few quick references to the key 'mindsets' asking ourselves: how do we generate them?

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Proactive managing

  • Drive in forward mode, looking through the windscreen rather than the rear-view mirror, ready to act whenever one picks up significant indications that changes may be needed now or a little way down the road. The analogy is good - it is a form of anticipating the future we are all used to. We manage the consequences of events that have not occurred.
  • Gather information to create: go proactively beyond merely optimizing use of scarce resources.
  • Get everyone involved in identifying opportunities, not just 'doing their job'.
  • 'Turn negatives into positives' - often that's where the opportunities lie.
  • 'Manage from the outside in' - see things through the eyes of customers, shareholders, and competitors and know ahead whether there is a continuing market for what you currently do well. Don't define yourself by what you know.
  • What are the critical frontiers on which we are conducting business? Are they right ones? (One executive descibed how the planning process in his organisation is energised by producing 'competitor plans'-a useful empathy).
  • Accept the schizophrenic problem of keeping the present going, while repositioning in the light of fracture lines. Repositioning means turning creative ideas into rigorous actions plans.

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Sharing the vision

  • A vision is a shared understanding of where you're going. The ability to share is a vital competence: to share core values, corporate philosophy, identity - words we can't afford to be cynical about.
  • 'Vision' is not airy-fairy, it is a framework for action which gives everyone a reference point for what they ought to be doing: staff can judge whether their small action 'resonates with broader aims': 'an instinctive feel for what is appropriate'.
  • Beware of mission statements which are so general that they give no-one any clear idea to hang on to: a mission statement should get employees enthused.
  • Leaders empower others.
  • Leaders are at every level so broaden the leadership process.

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Empowering human resources

  • A learning organisation is a changing organisation: learning is about change. We should relish change (the word is thus used in ordinary speech: 'I need a change').
  • Unleash the creative potential of the staff - don't just fill slots to do tasks.
  • One company set up a 'specific' six-month project group for people to create new things - but they couldn't return to their old jobs at the end. This changed 500 jobs over two years.
  • Blend specialist and generalist qualities - know some detail about something - but broaden so that you know 'the difference between an issue and an event': learn to blend today and tomorrow.
  • A class accountant has to be a crack motivator, too, if he is a manager.
  • Beware 'the production manager whose head is in the sand or the entrepreneurial person whose head is in the clouds'.
  • Create conditions that allow things to happen: doesn't mean 'be soft'.

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Promoting creativity, learning and innovation

  • A winning attitude.
  • Stewards or builders.
  • Optimism and 'You can make a difference'.
  • Don't be driven by quarterly reports or the regular cycle of board meetings: these leave little time for the future.
  • Encourage people to focus on ideas rather than data.
  • We face so much variety outside: so we need variety inside to match - including awkward people. Creativity thrives on the tension created by diversity.
  • Customer 'focus groups' to discover strengths and weaknesses - risky but effective.
  • Flatten the organisation: be open: give autonomy (always being said: how often implemented).
  • 'Let the person make the job instead of the job define the person.'

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Developing skills in remote management

  • Helicoper management: disbanding large HQ. Planning bottom up. HQ deals just with the overriding vision and ultimate financial control. The top operate at a distance (hover) and land only when something is really going wrong. Not on-site management.
  • Grow large by remaining small. (At a certain size, hive off a new small plant, office or store). The corporate philosophy flows - it is called 'managing through an umbilical cord'.
  • Promote self-organisation. Work on assumption that employees are resourceful and able.
  • The remote manager (ie who lets the staff get on with it), redirects the energies of staff, through the management of values, rather than through direct control. This requires tolerance of some ambiguity (and good feedback processes).
  • Orchestrate, facilitate and coordinate.

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Harnessing the creative power of information technologies

Morgan brings out the wider opportunities and issues involved in IT, eg rapid evolution of products, so shorter life cycles: multi-purpose products: 'peripheral drive systems'(eg credit cards controlled from many points): link of provider with user: networks replacing centralised bureaucracies: new work design: shift from accounting to data-base management, opening the way for people to use initiative: real time decision making. IT can be part of the empowering people process, makes change easier to bring about, to harness and to feel easy with. Morgan also warns of the frequent lack of coherence in introducing IT, and the danger of information overload.

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Managing complexity and ambiguity

  • Managing multiple stakeholders. 'Stakeholder power is becoming as important as shareholder power' - but is it? Are shareholders too concerned with short term gain for ideas in this book to get fully rooted? Is customer king or is it shareholder?
  • However, Morgan points out that excessive power for any stakeholder has to be held in balance - be it shareholders, unions, government, suppliers, special interest groups. This is a major challenge.
  • Network control rests in the management of relationships.
  • Danger in growth acquisition, merger, joint venture etc, is that a company can go 'from high integration to potpourri'.
  • You have to manage many things at once. Accept it.
  • Don't think in terms of 'either/or'.

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Broadening competences and reframing targets

This is a case study based on Canada, picking up many of the earlier themes, including some that read like Britain: inadequate response to global challenges, poor R&D; poor production capacity: excess and outdated. Others were different eg value has to be created now, rather than chopping down more trees, since the resource base is diminishing (this is a key Canadian fracture line).

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Closing section

The last chapter and two appendices pick up everything that has been said and talk about how to develop the new competences (fig.1) and ride the waves. Particular emphasis is given to fracture line forums, which last two days - one third of the time identifying and discussing fracture lines: the rest spent working out the implications of them for the future of the enterprise. The outcome is a summary of key issues to be addressed and the competences needed to do so effectively.

The very act of producing a fracture line analysis, a plan to manage the breakpoints and a C-plan (competence plan) is itself a significant learning experience and a contribution to achieving the aim of skilled managerial surfing.

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