On Change

Changing Patterns

By Norbert Specker/September 2003 --- Ever tried to stop smoking? Or to eat healthier? To be around more for your kids? Ever tried to get your company to be more aware of “where the puck will be” rather than concentrating on “where the puck is,” as Wayne Gretzky reportedly put it?

Why are defeats the rule?
If you always manage to tune your personal or professional system to be the best possible, I want to hear from you. Most of us other mortals have more defeats than victories in our history of ambitious changes. Why is that? Why is it so difficult to overcome the inertia of the systems we engage in — be it family, company, or ourselves?
Mostly because these systems try very hard to stay stable. On a personal level, the known misery for most people is preferable to the unknown and uncertain happiness. On a company level, internal processes are executed by people who generally prefer things to be as they are. The wish to change things — move them around, put them on their head — is just something most of us don’t have. Once a rhythm is established, people like to stick to it.

Find the rhythm
Every organisation has its specific rhythm. A rhythm that could manifest itself in how often talks across hierarchies happen, a project manager is expected to come up with a new idea, or the customer relationship development is reviewed. There will be a company-specific rhythm on how fast external requests are handled, how fast proposals from the employees are evaluated and implemented, how often those accountable will go to training sessions.

Any true change within this system will depend on how successfully this company rhythm can be destabilised so learning can move along to concentrate on new patterns.

Plotting a different course is not the same as introducing a different beat
If a company or a department needs to renew itself, the preferred method is to exchange the leadership. At first sight, this is simple enough. Put somebody at the helm who plots a different course and the rest will follow.
However, course and rhythm are not the same thing. In a world where change is the constant, the old truths are fading — leading by reaching agreed upon goals, having the company processes under control, and successful planning of the company future. These are beliefs that need to be questioned in markets that have become volatile and unpredictable.

Success without warning
For examples, markets are able to produce phenomenon of the economical magnitude like SMS in absolutely no time. Many of the European telecom companies were on the edge of bankruptcy in the wake of the merciless bidding for the wireless network access. Along came something nobody planned and plotted like SMS — and washed billions into their coffers.
It took most newspaper companies years to find a way to profit from the windfall that this particular change in the communications patterns among consumers brought. Many are still afraid to think outside their particular box. For them, the issues are: How can we make sure our company as a whole notices similar new potentials and reacts fast enough to realise them? How do we change the rhythm of the organisation and establish a pattern of curiosity and innovation?

Identify the drummers - then change their role
The change in rhythm is often facilitated by identifying the key drummers in the company and destabilising them. Interestingly enough, these drummers do not always sit in the obvious places. They are not necessarily the top executives but may manage the front desk, run the information technology (IT) support group, or the in-house communication department.
These informal guardians of stability have a great influence. Their opinion counts within the organisation. It influences how open many members of the company will be regarding any new development or directive. Those “change counter agents” are afraid of creative instability like the devil is afraid of the holy water. They are an unexpected — and often not identified — roadblock on the way to a culture of change.

This culture of change is essentially the ability of an organisation to move between stability and instability. Without interruption and uncertainty, no fundamental change in pattern is possible.

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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