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Perestroika, Pigs and Lipstick

Optimize Blog - August 17, 2011 - 0 comments

In an interview in The Guardian this week the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev makes some interesting comments about his time in office and, more specifically, some of the errors that he made.
One of those key errors was trying to continue reforms within the Communist Party which he now feels he should have abandoned earlier and established a new democratic party.
As the interviewer suggests, Gorbachev was always in a different class in terms of world leaders and therefore his objective assessment of his key mistakes during his six tumultuous years at the helm should not be a surprise.  Asked to name the things he most regretted, he replied without hesitation: “The fact that I went on too long in trying to reform the Communist party.” He should have resigned in April 1991, he said, and formed a democratic party of reform since the Communists were putting the brakes on all the necessary changes.
He goes on to say that the Communist Party “had become a brake on reforms even though it had launched them. But they all thought the reforms only needed to be cosmetic. They thought that painting the facade was enough, when actually there was still the same old mess inside the building.”

Mikhail Gorbachev - World class leadership

The popular saying “if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig” sums up this issue nicely and in business it can be used to describe those situations where companies communicate reform and change but in reality stifle that change  – either intentionally or unintentionally.
Talking change and reform at the boardroom table means nothing if that change is not facilitated widely throughout the organization via a meaningful, structured plan and with the requirements being supported and understood by all.  It is critical that the change and the reasons for the change is believed in by the leadership team.
Strong ideas, weakly held will not bring meaningful and sustainable success.  Worse still is having a view that talking change is sufficient and that normal service will be resumed shortly.
Equally expecting instant results; not taking the time to engage with stakeholders, doing it on the cheap; expecting everything to go smoothly and a host of other “easy solutions” simply aren’t realistic.
Gorbachev listed several achievements he was most proud of, starting with one word: “Perestroika.”
Meaning restructuring, Perestroika was the program of reforming the Soviet Union’s political and economic system that Gorbachev set in motion soon after he came to power in March 1985.  If you are considering Perestroika in your own organization ensure that you have patience and take a long term perspective.  Devote appropriate resources to the effort, and have a robust plan.

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