On Change

How Change Happens To Us

By Norbert Specker, August 2003 --- Systems theory tells us that in every open system, stability cannot last. There never is and never was such a thing as a stable situation. As our organisations interact, they change.

Things come and things go. The great soccer player of last year is average the next. The bruise we got stops hurting after awhile. We might feel comfortable and settled in our ways, our business, our thinking one moment; only to be swerved to do something else or differently at a minute‘s notice.

But how exactly does it happen? From where in our businesses does change come?

Change happens at the borders
Usually it works its way in from the fringes, from the borders of the system. And invariably it comes from a dark alleyway we were only slightly aware of.

Let us assume the corner store closes. For us personally, it means that now we need some transportation to go to the grocery store and our grocery shopping pattern changes. Maybe we only go once a week instead of daily. For the newspaper, it means the store is out of business and will not advertise anymore. The customer base of the newspaper changed every so slightly. Unnoticed as a single incident, it might take months and years until we notice a trend in our bottom line coming from the grocery sector.

Slow change looks like no change
However, if a change like this change comes with a decently moderate speed and is an isolated affair, our systems can easily accommodate it. Given time, our organisation will adapt to such a change almost without us noticing it. The system appears stable.

Time, of course, is the operative word. The way our organisations have been growing are a function of the time they had between changes. If changes come in measured intervals, a slow reacting system can handle those intervals. If those intervals get shorter and more external, changes are starting to influence the organisation more quickly. Most systems will just start to work faster, longer, and cheaper to cope with them all.

The limits of productivity
It is a modern day Charlie Chaplin reaction. The conveyor belt is speeding up, and so are we — which in most cases leaves us with not enough time to figure a way out of the turbulence. It is a Catch 22. We must go faster and faster to keep up, giving us less and less time to ponder how we could do it differently, which is the only solution to the dilemma.

You do not have to look far in our industry to see many conveyor belts moving at neckbreaking speed.

Being faster, cheaper, and working harder will not lead to sustainable results. Often it just leads to a collapse. The motor in your car collapses if it has to work harder because there is no oil. The people in your organisation collapse if they have to work too many shifts. Your organisation collapses if, for example, the advertising revenue is not coming back even though you work harder than ever.

Anticipation as a system quality
The most over-used PowerPoint slide of the last 10 years is a quote by ice hockey’s greatest Wayne Gretzky, in which he reportedly says “I skate not to where the puck is, but where it will be.” The quote illustrates anticipation as a key success factor.

However, it is easy to talk about a single person. We as individuals can all set our mind to be more open, to look further, to take a step back, to find the bird’s eye view on any of our tasks. If we enjoy any degree of fullfillment or success, it probably is exactly because we do anticipate what we should do. Most of us just don’t do it on skates.

But how in the world do you get a whole organisation to skate to where the puck will be? Because a system change — an industry change, a pattern change within our organisation — was what those speakers really had in mind when they flushed this slide at us.

Index of change columns

Norbert Specker is the founder of Interactive Publishing GmbH, a service and intervention company dedicated to support the newspaper publishing industry.


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