Decision-making and the benefits of change

2011

Before the benefits of a new idea become visible there will often be a negative period of confusion, the disruption of systems, criticism, worries about the cost, etc. All the negative aspects of the new idea may be visible or imagined immediately – but the benefits can only be seen in the future – and then, only if you are minded to see them.

That's why it is so important to consider the future benefits of change as part of the decision-making process. Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

For example, would a CEO with an uncertain term of office be willing to decide on change when the full benefits of such a change might only come in 20 years' time? It is not likely.

There are types of change where the rewards are much more immediate. Problem-solving is an obvious example of a change which can show immediate benefits. The problem is hurting someone or the system. Solving the problem shows immediate benefits. Even if the benefits are not immediate, they can easily be foreseen.

So problem-solving is an attractive exercise. As a result, too much management thinking is focused on problem-solving. Creativity is only seen as an additional tool of problem-solving.

The result is that matters which are not problems and which are perfectly satisfactory never get attention. There is no will to suggest change in such areas because the benefits of changing are not immediately apparent.

Improvement is always more difficult than problem-solving. That is why slow, step by step, incremental improvement is much favoured. The risk is small and gradually the benefits become visible.

There are always two sorts of risk involved with change.

The first is that the proposed change may not work. So there is a loss of time, money, energy, reputation, etc.

The second risk is that the idea might work too well, but that one of its side-effects is to hurt or damage the organisation's current operations.

Just as perceived gain is a powerful motivator, so perceived risk is an equally powerful de-motivating factor.

The ideal design of change is to suggest something where the benefits are easily perceived. In addition it should be possible to try the change in a pilot scheme or small area so that the benefits can be seen. These benefits would act as a motivator for extending the reach of the change. Such designs are not always possible.

You can point to the success of the proposed change in other areas. You can point to the success of somewhat similar changes. Neither of these is totally convincing because the reluctant people point to differences in circumstances – which may be valid.

The usual pattern of change is to let other people try it first. When the idea has been shown to work, then you come in with a 'me too' and seek to do it better than the initiator.

There are examples both ways. Sony initiated the video recorder with the Betamax system, but then VHS took over. On the other hand, Sony kept its lead with the Walkman.

First in the field may be successful – or it may not. Certainly the risk and the cost for those who are not first in the field is very much less. What is important in the design of change is to consider the time profile of the benefits.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono is a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.