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Radical Change Is for Losers

When it comes to change, leaders and management thinkers are unanimous about two things. First, change is hard. On that, everyone agrees, from Machiavelli
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things
to John Kotter
A few of these corporate change efforts have been very successful. A few have been utter failures. Most fall somewhere in between, with a distinct tilt toward the lower end of the scale.
Second, everyone says we should embrace change. We have no choice, because the rate of change is accelerating, consultants and technologists say. (Has anyone ever said it is slowing down?) And change is good, inspirational videos tell us. Resistance is not only futile, it's immature. You're a panicked little penguin on a melting iceberg. You're a mouse whining for cheese. "We will carry the wounded," the reengineering prophet Michael Hammer used to say, "but we will shoot the stragglers." Like things as they are? Get with the program.

But ... If something is difficult to do, painful to endure, and leaves scars, why would anyone want more of it? In an earlier life I observed that the fact that change is sexy doesn't make it good: "It's more glamorous to be Napoleon (who gained and lost an empire in little more than a decade) than Hadrian (who gave the Roman Empire a stability that endured for generations)."

It seems to me that managers should be praised more for their ability to make change unnecessary than for their appetite and aptitude for inflicting it. Recently I've been thinking about three things leaders can do to make painful change less common.

  1. Manage and inspire the human side of their enterprise--developing a vision, sharing and living values, and building a great team, including your own successor. The team bit is important. The best leadership is "collective genius," Harvard Business School's Linda Hill argues. When people manage and lead through teams--vs. as soloists--they create living, evolving repositories of institutional memory. They make better decisions, particularly if the team is diverse. Teams are superior crucibles for developing talent, increasing the likelihood that your successor will be an insider. Insiders, data show, are more likely to succeed. They're also less likely to impose change merely for the sake of carving their initials on history's bark.
  2. Find ways to get growth and ever-better performance out of the business they run today; that is, make today's business work. People tend to underestimate how much headroom their core business has. When times are good and growth seems easy, they get sloppy or they fail to press themselves for more. Peter Drucker once observed that a manager whose business is running 10% below plan is likely to face many more questions at a quarterly operating review than an executive whose business is up 10%--but questions about the latter might reveal far more about what the business should be doing. When times are tough, on the other hand, bosses are liable to buy into that hype about accelerating change and conclude that a business is inherently bad, when it may just need better, more inventive management. They freak when then should tweak.
  3. Develop a shrewd sense--both analytic and intuitive--of what tomorrow's business will be, and steer your company into a position to prosper in the future even more than it does in the present. Continuity and change are not enemies; they are inseparable buddies, like Iron Man and Pepper Pott. There's only one company that has been part of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average during its entire 115-year history: General Electric. Talk about continuity! But of GE's products today, only locomotives and incandescent light bulbs were in the company's portfolio then. Talk about change! By its very nature, analytic strategy--which shows up in PowerPoint decks crunchy with numbers--is better for quantifying near term opportunities than it is for foretelling the future. You want business judgment to tell you if a global megatrend will affect you in the form of industry-changing, radical disruption, or will reshuffle the deck of winners and losers, or will leave the existing order pretty much intact.
Madison Avenue loves to make car commercials showing drivers swerving away from falling rocks or plowing through hubcap-high flash floods. But on real roads, the best drivers know that the best way to handle trouble is to avoid it in the first place.

Illustration courtesy flickr user Cyberslayer