My list of top-ten irritating phrases of recent times, somewhere after “leverage” and “we’re a people company”, would have to include “embracing change”. Shelves in the business sections of major book stores groan with the weight of manuals that profess to be able to tell you how to change, guide you through change, and how to deal with change. Frankly, there are a lot of people out there in need of a smacked bottom.
It’s not that the desire to change for the better is wrong, but in line with the definition on wikipedia - a solution “that appears obvious but is ineffective or far from optimal in practice” - it is an antipattern.
The issues stems from the fact that change is such a loaded word. A word that Edgar Allan Poe would agree is heavy with portent (were he alive today, “The Pit and The Pendulum” may well have involved a change programme rather than a surreal torture chamber).
So before you unhook the latch of ineptitude, and unleash the cats of change amongst the pigeons of hope, here are ten reasons why change might not be the word you are looking for.
Change isn’t what you want
In 99% of cases where somebody stands up and announces that everyone needs to embrace change they don’t actually mean change. The most succinct dictionary definition that I could find simply said that change means “to cause to be different”. I’ll wager that you don’t want different. You want the same, just better.
The word Change makes no suggestion as to whether the outcome is better or worse. Presumably you don’t want worse. If you want the same but better then use a word like improve, enhance, refine, upgrade, or advance. Don’t misappropriate the word Change when that’s not what you mean.
If on the other hand you really want change (your software company is going to start selling gardening utensils instead) you don’t need to announce it. You need to release the 90% of your workforce that knows nothing about gardening and hire a new set of people.
We all hate Change
I was at a three day off-site workshop a while ago. On day one I sat in the first chair that was convenient. The next day I arrived and sat in the same chair without thinking, as did everybody else. On the third day the attendees were different and I arrived later than before. Someone was in my chair. OK. So it’s no big deal. I just sat somewhere else but I can’t deny that something as pathetic as being four foot from my previous location felt a bit disconcerting. And I’m an old hand at change. I’ve changed and been changed all my life. Dammit, I’m meant to be a changemeister.
But I’m not unusual in that respect. David Taylor, described as “compulsory reading for any organisation that believes in the power of a motivated workforce” (and not just by his Mum), says:
We are simply not comfortable with change. If you do not believe me: Turn someone's desk round to face a different direction when they are on holiday. Change your newspaper and see how long it takes you to navigate the layout. Rotate where you sit at the dinner table as a family. Change causes confusion, even chaos, in our minds .. inside, we scream for clarity.
The truth is we don’t mind changing others, just so long as we don’t have to change too much ourselves.
Change often equals bad
Because change doesn’t imply good or bad the prevailing meaning (especially when announced by the CEO at the first mandatory global gathering anyone can remember) is bad. The witch changed the prince into a toad. Climate Change. If it was called climate improvement I don’t suppose it would get much in the way of headlines.
Change will lower productivity at a time you need it most
This you can guarantee. Book a conference room in one of those cheap business hotels (or go to your company restaurant), gather everybody together and announce the desire for change and this is what will happen:
First there will be uncertainty. What’s the change all about? Who’s managing it? How long will it last?
This will immediately be followed by thoughts about job security. Who will go? Will I keep my job? Can I afford that holiday/home extension/new car now?
Uncertainty and lack of security results in a drop in morale. If the staff aren’t motivated they will work less productively. Just at a time when you need buy-in, you get the opposite.
Change often comes in the form of a programme with names like phoenix, renaissance or revive. What’s the message there? Come on. You’re not dead, you just need to raise your game.
Change will lose you some of your best people
So you’re uncertain and insecure, but good at your job and in therefore in demand. Just as a safety net you might pop your CV out there to see if anyone’s looking. Next thing you know you’re being offered more money at a place that is guaranteeing you a job. The corollary of that of course is that if you can’t go you won’t, so change has the effect of increasing the concentration of the very people (one presumes) that you wish to change.
Change takes no account of now
A quick Google search came up with two overused analogies for changing a business whilst still remaining in business “changing the wheel on a bus at 60 mph” and “like trying to change the engines of an aircraft whilst in flight”.
True, perhaps. But what I want to know is who’s flying the plane?
Change isn’t something you control
Once you say change out loud you create a concept that has no frame of reference. Getting better at something implies looking at whatever it is, identifying the weaknesses and improving them. Change just says “different”. And the problem with that is everybody’s idea of success is different.
Change is a honey pot for all the wrong kinds of people
Once you’ve opened up the possibility for activity without a frame of reference you have agents of change, winds of change, champions of change, change embracers, visioneers, strategists and all manner of immeasurable costly things happening.
Change leads to failure
See rules 1 - 8. You wanted to make something better. Maybe you needed to make a lot of things better, but if you immediately open up the war on too many fronts you won’t focus on those things. What started as an idea for simple improvement is now communications exercises, workshops, lists, huge documents, people issues, reignited politics, positioning and endless presentations.
People who sell change always have stories of where it worked. It doesn’t. I’ve never met a single soul who thought change made anything better. I know of improvements that did, and people that did, and managers that did. But not where it was called change.
A commonly cited über-change guru is Jack Welch, the ex CEO of General Electric and Fortune Magazine’s Manager-of-the-Century. Certainly he presided over a period of impressive growth and certainly his ideas of reducing waste and cutting bureaucracy were sensible. But the business didn’t actually change, it may not have even improved that much if you take the views of some observers that in fact the company was already doing very well when he took it over.
Change never ends
If by change we really mean development and evolution, then that never stops. Nor should it. So when someone says “we’re changing”, the rational response should be to say “No shit? Really? Again?”.
We’re permanently developing, just sometimes not as well or as fast as we’d like. The answer to that fact of life isn’t something labelled change, because that takes all the above and makes them permanent fixtures too.
Bonus Point: Don’t confuse Change with Challenge, or a Fresh Start
No sooner had I published this list did I get a riposte from Richard Bundock, one of the UK’s leading mentors in Agile methods. He said:
Not all people hate change. In fact a lot of people get excited about it.
Clue: That’s me, that is.
I hate sitting at the same desk. I try to move seats as often as possible. I actively
encourage team members to change seats when they need to work closely. I move job
(being a contractor makes that easy) as often as I can. I absolutely totally and
utterly have to have change at work. Without it I get really bored, really quickly
and that turns into stress. Yes, stress from no change.
With which I have to agree (although I can’t pretend that having to change my article didn’t initially feel uncomfortable :) ).
I like this kind of change too. About fourteen years ago I was on a project that was going down the tubes. A new project manager was assigned and the first thing he did was make us rearrange the office seating. All of a sudden things felt new and different and fresh. As he implemented new ways of working we were more receptive to them.
The secret is control. When we change ourselves we are in control. When others change us, there is the potential for us to feel that we have lost control. That sense of control is analogous, in the case of change, with the concept of respect. If we are involved in the change, our views are being respected. If someone stands up and says that what we do isn’t good enough and we have to change, we aren’t being respected. When they say we have done a good job, given our current tools, management, etc, but we have a new challenge to face together, we are being respected for what we have done.
It’s very much about how you pitch it. Points 1 - 10, I would suggest, are very real when change is seen as a threat. But in fact for most of us there’s something rather exciting about the kind of change that’s seen as a group challenge, where the initiators of it respect us for our achievements, and where they explicitly show confidence in our ability to rise to the occasion.