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« More on Strategy | Main | A one-time event, advice for suppliers »

Change... it's a funny thing

A while back the Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece on waiting and how to deal with its frustration… a chronic issue in both business and personal lives.  I don’t want to talk about waiting here though, but rather change.  Here is an excerpt of the article (bold and underlining are mine):

Research shows that waiting for uncertain outcomes can be more uncomfortable than adjusting to the worst of them, which explains why impending mergers and reorganizations drive people mad. In a paper to be presented later this month, George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at CarnegieMellonUniversity, studied people who underwent colostomies, or intestinal bypasses. Half of them had the possibility of having it reversed; for the others it was permanent.

Measuring their life satisfaction, the researchers found that those with permanent colostomies very rapidly improved whereas those who could ultimately reverse them stayed relatively unsatisfied. "Hope impedes adaptation," says Prof. Loewenstein.

That last sentence really struck me.  Hope impedes adaptation.  Quite a thought.  I’m certain that no one who is bound for a colostomy is jumping for joy, but those who know they are stuck with it “very rapidly improved”… those with “hope” did not.

I have been an agent of change my entire adult life.  In my consulting practice, driving change is a significant part of what I do.  In fact it is a primary aspect of almost everything I do.  But change is a funny thing.  It is truly amazing how we hold on to ideas we can’t defend, beliefs whose origins are unknown, and surprisingly even ideas we may not even agree with anymore.  Yet we often cling to them like a poor soul hanging on to the only tree left standing in a raging flood. 

I’ve done it myself… often caught by observant management teams who take extreme joy in catching me defending an idea whose factual underpinnings have been eroded away in our discussions.  This tendency to fight change is prevalent in all of us to some degree.  But most of my resistance to change experience comes from my clients and their employees.   

In a consulting project it is always easier for me since I don’t have any what I call “used-to-be’s”.  As in, “that’s not the way it used to be”.  I come in with a blank slate.  And ultimately I don’t really care if something is designed this way or that, as long as it works and is in complete harmony with all other parts of the machine and meets the owner’s desires.

Of course in a consulting project, everyone else has their very real, day-to-day experiences.  They do have “used-to-be’s”.  In addition, they also often prefer this or that choice since it is best for them in their professional or personal arena.   As an agent of change, I help my clients and their employees look at their organizations in completely different ways; thus my ongoing encounters with resistance to change. 

I speculate this reluctance to change is a simple human feature.  It’s straightforward; it is generally better to be cautious with every new idea (and action) rather than to blindly take it to heart.  Do not let go of your present beliefs too easily; you are alive right now and unless you are in a crisis, things probably are not all that bad.  There are a lot more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right.  So we hang on tight, whether we know it or not. 

And guess what?  If you are in a crisis you will find change much easier to accept.  Significant emotional events are a catalyst for personal change, for breaking out of an old way of thinking and discovering and embracing a new paradigm.  Looking back on those occasions when we finally let go and accept a new idea, it is startling how hard we held on; often for no real reason (in fact often against reason).  It’s not a moral issue; it’s just a trait we all have.  Be aware of it.

Back to the “hope impedes adaptation” thought.  Look at your business.  Have you allowed hope to impede you in moving forward?  Perhaps refusing to accept that now is the time to sell?  Perhaps refusing to accept that there are other, and perhaps better ways to run your business?  Perhaps refusing to accept that your entire strategic vision might be in need of a major tune-up?  Perhaps refusing to accept that members of your management team are not prepared to help move your company into the future?

Did you know that all significant advances in military strategy came in “resource poor” environments?  It makes perfect sense.  You are in battle with limited resources… you either find a way to make it work or you die.  You adapt and change or it’s the end.  I’m certain this situation does tend to focus one’s thinking.

The same is true in most areas of life.  Resource poor environments are where most innovations come from.  This is something you must consciously work to address.  Fat and happy is more than just a snappy saying.  In a resource rich environment, organizations and their people tend to become fat and happy, and very resistant to change.  But organizationally this can lead to very bad outcomes – success breeding failure.  You don’t want your organization to be like an old, magnificent oak tree… which looks strong and healthy but is actually weak and rotting from the inside.  And at the first significant wind, it comes crashing down.  Ideally you want an organizational culture which generates a resource-rich environment but whose mentality is one of being very resource poor… open to any and all ideas, embracing change,  flushing the “used-to-be’s” on a daily basis.

Recently an A-B client was rather surprised that a competitor who he has dominated for years is actually getting better – not just as a result of hotter brands but getting better from a managerial and execution view-point.  As I reminded him, just like the military example above, they either had to get better or die… they chose to get better.  Not without a lot of kicking and screaming mind you, but when pushed towards extinction, they improved.

Very real pain (and quite often fear) is what drives many organizations to embrace change.  My attitude is why wait for the pain?  Keep ahead of the game so you never have to experience the pain. 

Oh, and one last point… please remember that change requires just that, change.  You can’t change yet want to continue to do things exactly as you do today.  Just doesn’t work.

Also, re-read that first paragraph of the WSJ article… “waiting for uncertain outcomes can be more uncomfortable than adjusting to the worst of them,”  For those who embrace organizational change, don’t get too crazy.  People do not handle constant change well.  If you are going to make organizational changes - plan and design it well with a good implementation strategy and then let the machine run.  Focus on improving your organizational performance by improvements in execution, not constantly fiddling with the machine.  Every 3 – 5 years take a hard look at the machine, not every 6 months.  And if you do plan for change, get it done with.  Don’t drag it on and on and on.  It is incredibly destructive to an organization to always be waiting “for the other shoe to drop”.  Accelerating organizational change is one of the many incredible values I bring to the table when helping with a re-org.  Since I am 100% focused on the re-org (and it’s not my first rodeo so I’ve probably learned at least a few things in the past 25 years), we can get the thing designed, built, and implemented in a lot less time… saving your employees the very real (and unproductive) agony of waiting for uncertain outcomes… to say nothing of building a better organization, generally at less cost.

Next post – a one time event, advice for suppliers!

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