We know that change is good for us, don’t we? We even believe it’s as good as a rest. We’ve grown accustomed to radical overhauls, wholesale change programmes, new initiatives, organisation redesign.
But we’ve never really learned to love them.
Maybe you can have too much of a good thing. Maybe we’ve had too much change all at once – all our Christmases came together and now we are all maxed out!
And maybe the new change mantra should be “little and often” rather than “binge, binge, binge!”
How refreshing if our change programmes actually allowed us time to digest and extract the value from change.
How great would it be if we could actually develop a taste for it?
Sadly for most of us, we have lived through so much badly handled change that it actually induces stomach cramps rather than whets our appetite for more.
And it’s the big change programmes that seem to be the most unpalatable.
Many of the reasons for large-scale change taking place within our institutions and organisations are spurious and more avoidable than we’ve been led to believe.
Fixed term appointments (e.g., governments). These encourage massive change initiatives over a short period of time before the next lot get in! Adversarial politics mean that nothing the previous lot did can be considered right.
Pressure to Perform Immediately. Where the stakes are high, and the difference between winning and losing is a very narrow margin, we require our leaders to act quickly, decisively and successfully.
A new CEO feels compelled to make his or her mark and leave a lasting legacy (for the next CEO to come in and undo). New Leaders seem biologically programmed to distance themselves from the legacy of the past.
A sudden catastrophe, unexpected and extreme, forces radical action. This is Crisis Change and is exemplified by the recent financial crisis which originated in the US sub-prime lending market and generously spread throughout the world. It’s like the shifting continental plates of the earth that suddenly buckle and redraw the landscape in one fell-swoop.
Long periods of stagnation result in the need to take a huge leap just to catch up.
The last wholesale change didn’t work and created so many problems that we have to come forward with a brand new design.
It’s questionable how valid these reasons are as justification for the monumental upheaval that we have repeatedly subjected our companies to.
And the way we have responded to some of the above has forced us into an endless cycle of damaging change.
1. Fixed Term Appointments
It’s not only governments who adopt this model, but we can just about stomach it because at least in a democracy, we feel we have a chance to boot them out if we don’t like what they’re doing.
Theoretically shareholders and board members can do the same in business, but it doesn’t happen that often.
The pressure on people appointed to fixed term posts is to start running quickly. No time for a slow build up. No time for a starter, just skip straight to the main course.
And because the impact of any change they introduce has to be seen and measured within a certain time-frame, the temptation is to go for the big rather than small.
Companies often advertise posts on a fixed-term basis. Internal appointments are often specified as 12 or 24 months duration, and in some cases, the role is rotated on an annual (or longer) basis.
So instead of absorbing and considering subtle changes that will bring lasting benefit in the long-term, the expectations we seem to place on our appointees is to deliver a big plateful of change.
2. Pressure to Perform Immediately
This is similar to the above, but subtlety different in that the appointment is not explicitly fixed to time.
Of course, everyone knows that if the person doesn’t perform, they’ll be out on their ear, but it’s not time that is expressed as the limiting factor, it’s what they manage to achieve…as long as they do it quickly!
We see this happening in organisations where the environment is very dynamic, the margin that separates one company from another is very small, and the stakes are very high. Big sums of money are involved, and these can fluctuate dramatically within a very short space of time.
Sports managers are a prime example. They are often only given a few matches to prove themselves, so they have to be big and bold.
3. New Leaders
History shows us that each new incumbent in a senior role has a tendency to start reinventing.
We’ve created this because we haven’t dedicated enough thought to succession planning and how to hand over the strategic reigns in a seamless way.
Instead, the appointment of a new leader can almost feel like a take-over. He or she gets to work like a new chef, signalling a new kitchen regime, and a new menu.
Of course, there are different reasons why a new CEO is appointed and one of those is as a result of the spectacular failure of a predecessor. But why should we accept this? What are we doing allowing our major institutions to be run by people who are so incompetent? And why did we give them so much power in the first place? Maybe we gave them too much gas?
4. Sudden Catastrophe?
If we leave the gas on, sooner or later it’s going to explode, so we shouldn’t be overly surprised when it happens. A lot of the catastrophes that befall us aren’t sudden at all, they were waiting to happen.
Our increased levels of sophistication mean that we can now predict things more effectively and further in advance.
And then we can take necessary steps (in advance) to mitigate against the catastrophic event when it happens, if it happens. But we don’t always predict and we don’t always take the right action.
The Chile earthquake registered 8.8 on the Richter scale.
The Haiti earthquake was 7.0
The death toll in Chile was 486 people
The death toll in Haiti was nearly 300,000
Even accounting for different demographics and population densities the difference is striking.
Both earthquakes were predictable, yet the actions taken over time to ensure a better outcome were very different.
This isn’t about blame. There are many factors, some of them political and some of them economical, why Haiti was not prepared for what happened to it. But it does show that the extreme suffering and the on-going struggle to get Haiti back on its feet, at phenomenal expense was actually avoidable to a great extent.
What about some other so-called sudden catastrophes?
Did no-one realise that the New Orléans levees were inadequate before Hurricane Katrina devastated that city and its population?
Of course they did, but it wasn’t politically expedient to acknowledge it or do anything about it – until disaster struck in 2005, and then the scale of the clean-up was absolutely massive.
And what about the global financial crisis that hit in 2008. Did no-one see it looming? After all, it’s a catastrophe that has resulted in big changes becoming part of our staple diet and it has preoccupied board rooms the world over.
The truth is that people had warned about it for years. But it seems we didn’t take any notice.
We can only guess why. Perhaps, whilst the money was apparently pouring in, we didn’t want to look at the reservoir emptying. So we buried our head in the sand, exposing our rear to the mighty kick of a recession.
Maybe our focus on instant gratification made us take our eye off the ball. We were enjoying the cake too much. Even if we had doubts about what it might be doing to us, we didn’t want to go there. Like the smoker who knows that it’s damaging to health but thinks it won’t happen to them or only in the distant future.
So the term ‘sudden catastrophe’ is often used as an excuse for big change programmes. The truth is often out there if we’re prepared to look for it and act on it.
If you leave a soup for days and weeks on an unlit hob without stirring it, before long it’s going to go off. The bacteria will move in and have a feast. And then the only option is to get rid of it and start over again.
Chefs in large restaurants keep their stock pot constantly on the go. They keep feeding it, draining and condensing, reducing it down to a sauce, adding seasoning, consuming and replenishing.
They never allow stagnation, because it’s easier to keep working with something that’s in motion than starting up from scratch. And the flavour is that much richer.
The longer a company operates in a stagnant state, the more inevitable it becomes that the change, when it comes, will be huge.
6. Last Change Programme Failed
You have probably been part of an organisation that has veered precariously between Centralisation and Decentralisation, between In-house and Out-sourcing, between Growing and Contracting. These changes tend to last a few years, but they typically come back round again in a cyclical fashion.
Organisations argue that this is because they need to respond to the changing landscape: new buying patterns, new markets, new laws, new pressures on cost and margins, new competition. All of these appear to sensible reasons for making adjustments in the way companies operate.
However, the scale of the adjustment is often out of proportion with the challenge. It’s like over steering a car on a mountain pass to avoid a butterfly.
Changes of this sort usually designed to save money, often end up costing money and damaging productivity.
Confidence, morale and skills dissipate and companies are left with few options other than a reversal programme a few years down the road.
Too many change programmes are an over-egged attempt to recover from the damage of a failed change programme that went before.
Big Change isn’t Bad!
We’re not saying that big change is always bad for your health. But it should carry a warning.
Sometimes big change is both necessary and justified. Sometimes it is a brave and ultimately successful attempt to launch or re-launch a business in a way that delivers the element of surprise to its competitors.
So this isn’t a case of being afraid of change. It’s not that we aren’t up to the task: that we can’t stand the heat so we’re trying to get out of the kitchen.
This is about recognising that there is a time and a place for big change, and that the change should be appropriate to the situation.
It’s also about dispelling some of the myths we have created about change, and giving us a new recipe.
Change should be manageable, appropriate and well-managed. Our experience so far has probably felt somewhat different.
If we are to reduce our need for and exposure to colossal change, we’ve got to start small.
Evolution is the most successful example of change we have. But you can’t really see it. It’s slow. It happens in very small steps. It’s only once it has happened that we can look back and notice how far we’ve come.
Small adjustments, modifications, improvements, revisions, additions, rejections: they are happening all the time. We see the outcome although we might be largely unaware of the process as we live through it. So it isn’t that nothing is changing, but that we are not overly disturbed by the change.
Language is another great example. It needs to grow organically. People resist any attempt to fix it or re-invent it. It develops because we develop it slowly over time, as new influences and experiences are allowed to permeate and become absorbed.
These are more than interesting examples of change. They are a clue as to where we might have gone wrong with much of our organised change in the past: change which is typified by too much, too soon, too fast.
Well, maybe it’s time to slow things down a bit. Maybe it’s time to embrace the notion of bite-size change, small chunks, little mouthfuls.
We still want to eat… but we don’t want the whole cow in one go!
The Long Game
Change doesn’t have to:
feel like we’re being hit by a speeding train.
be a hammer to crack a nut
Change can be:
Small and measured, delivering big change but over a longer period
A detailed and controlled processes that works incrementally
We can manage it so that it creeps up on our organisation in such a way so as not to cause distress, outrage and panic. We can reap the benefit of change without the ensuing heartburn.
But to achieve this we need to adopt a different strategy: the Strategy of CREEP
CONTROL – slow, well-controlled small steps
RECALIBRATE – modify and mend only what’s broken; don’t throw out the whole
EXTEND – think in terms of 10 years or 20, not 2 or 5
EVOLVE – don’t revolve
PLAN – for succession, and a successful handover of your strategy to new leaders
Big change often feels out of control because it is. It’s too much for people to handle. It’s too complex for people to grasp. So corners get cut, and the little things get overlooked.
By contrast, focusing on the small steps that will gradually elevate you to your desired destination increases your chances of success. Why? Because people can assimilate and accommodate them without them interfering too radically on their business-as-usual tasks. They have time to make the change work and the new method to become embedded, they can feel the benefit of the change, and they feel less threatened by the process.
But to introduce big changes in this incremental, bite-size way takes great management control. It requires you know where you are going and to be rigorous about putting all the building blocks in place.
If a light bulb goes in your home, you don’t decide to move house. You change the bulb. You might decide to seize the opportunity and change the light fitting whilst you’re at it, but that’s as far as you need to go.
If your car runs out of petrol, you don’t scrap it. You fill it up. If its starts to perform less well, you get it checked out. You take it for a service.
Big change programmes have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bath water. They over-do it. The change required was a small modification, a new injection, or a simple replacement, but instead you get a full-scale re-design.
We are constantly recalibrating our own living space. As our families grow and our needs change so we reconfigure our homes to accommodate those new needs. Eventually, we might grow out of our home and have to move, but there’s a lot we do before we get to that point. We re-decorate, move furniture around, change some of the furnishings, convert loft spaces and cellar spaces, and build an extension. These are manageable, sensible steps we take to make the best use of what we’ve got.
Of course, if we want to and we can afford it, we might choose to move to a much larger house. We always retain this right to choose. But for most of us, the best option is to make small adjustments as we go.
Business plans, strategic plans, project plans, goals and objectives are often created for the short to medium term. Some of the reasons why have been explained in the opening section of this article.
What would happen if we started planning for the long-term?
By long-term, I mean beyond 5 years, where small changes are seen in the context of a well-controlled and thought-out bigger change that delivers over a larger time-frame. A change programme that is designed to complete in 5 or 10 or 20 years allows for greater control, and the opportunity to re-calibrate as we go.
And because the change is gradual, new and appropriate habits are given time to form.
Just because the change is gradual doesn’t mean it should go unnoticed. People still need to be made aware of what the change will require of them and what it is designed to deliver.
That means also, that the change should show a discernible and measurable improvement. If people can see this, and it didn’t cost them too much to get there, they are going to be much more willing to accompany you on the rest of the journey.
It’s typically slow, and occasionally has to recover from natural disasters, but it keeps moving on.
We need to do the same.
Going back to a solution that didn’t work before might not always be sensible. Learn from it, adapt it, but don’t repeat it.
Sometimes solutions are ahead of their time. That’s why they don’t work. And attempting to repeat them within living memory is very challenging, even if circumstances have changed sufficiently for you to believe the time is now right.
So factor in all the new circumstances, and build the solution in the here and now, never forgetting to communicate why this is different and why it needs to be different.
I explained earlier in this article how the appointment of a new leader can radically change the direction of a company, and that we shouldn’t see this as inevitable.
Developing the right successor and handing over the reins in a smooth transition is far better for companies than the uncertainty and upheaval that we more commonly see.
So to avoid this, we need to plan more carefully how the long-term strategy can survive the appointment of a new leader.
creating a clear vision for the organisation and handing it on
creating plans for the long-term
succession-planning to develop a board who can fill each other’s shoes
drafting clear expectations of new leaders around the delivery of the plan
The purpose here is not to constrain the ingenuity of a successor, but to give them a context and a framework within which to work. It’s more about establishing continuity than stoking revolution.