Good change, bad change

Nov 20 2014 by Max McKeown Print This Article

If change is one of the few certainties in life, why is it so often confused with ‘improvement’? Far from the two being synonymous, change that makes things better is only a subset of change as a whole.

Your car blowing up, losing a job, getting dumped, shearing off part of a finger in a freak accident with a television set (as I once did) are all changes, but few would consider them things that make life better. And yet in many organisations, making change for change's sake is a dangerous temptation.

Let's consider 'LOOK BUSY' changes that are made just because they make those in charge appear more proactive than if they decided not to make changes.

Each time a new minister, head teacher, or chief executive takes up office, they seem to come under pressure to do something different in order to justify the change of personnel. But all too often, change for change's sake becomes a poor substitute for a lack of understanding about what should be done next to improve the situation.

There are also 'BLAME THE LAST GUY' changes - as in the story about one of the Soviet presidents who handed two letters to his successor on his departure.

In Traffic, the 2000 movie, Kruschev then explains: "When you get into a situation you can't get out of, open the first letter and you'll be saved. And when you get into another situation you can't get out of, open the second."

Soon enough this guy found himself in a tight place. So he opened the first letter. It said, "Blame everything on me." So he blamed the old guy and it worked like a charm. Of course, the new guy got into another situation he couldn't get out of, so he opened the second letter, which read, "sit down and write two letters."

'Let's have some fun' changes are made because those in power just get bored.

Some are 'LET'S HAVE SOME FUN' changes, made because those in power just get bored.

The fabulous and worrying book, Barbarians At The Gate, chronicles the story of one such man, Ross Johnson, CEO of Nabisco, then the 17th largest company in the USA.

According to the book, Johnson used to "play the role of master puppeteer, keeping the company and it's officers in a constant state of reorganisation […] sometimes ordering two businesses to change buildings knowing that one would end up bursting at the seams while the other would rattle around looking for someplace to grow."

He would also change reporting relationships without warning, leading to the joke among employees that, "if my boss calls, ask him for his name and number."

These changes culminated in the sale of the company for $25bn and it's eventual loss of independence in the biggest deal of the deal-mad 1980s.

It's not that people vote for change instead of improvement. They don't. People are attracted to manifesto and strategic promises of improvement. It's just that delivering promises is harder than delivering changes but they look very similar for the first few months or years until a deliverable is expected. It's hard to know whether they are just an effort to look busy, blame the last guy, or just have some fun.

So how can those in power and influence to know the difference between a change and an improvement before it happens?

Heuristics are the answer. Short cut principles that allow an immense amount of wisdom to be wrapped up in a sentence of two.

We use them all the time because life is too complex to allow careful consideration of every choice. One everyday heuristic is that "expensive = best", a notion supported by the logic that other buyers will have checked whether the price is reasonable and that the seller will have set a price that allows the item to be sold.

Of course such short cuts don't always work, but we constantly use them when faced with complexity.

So my first proposed heuristic is "Consultation = Smart" or "the worker knows best".

If you see change that has had no consultation with the people who know most about the work then be suspicious.

Even Frederick Taylor, father of scientific management and assembly lines, readily admitted that the knowledge he needed to discover the "one best way" of doing each job was in the heads of the workers.

As he put it in 1914, "these fellows always know 10 times more than you do", and it seems self-evident that the manager cannot know all that the workers know about their work.

It follows that any change that is made without involving the knowledge, and preferably the engagement, of the worker is less likely to bring about improvement, since the change is made in ignorance.

My second heuristic is Truth Is Simple, owing something to Ockham's razor, an idea proposed by William of Ockham in the 14th Century, that states: "all things being equal the simplest explanation, fitting the evidence, is most likely to be true."

In other words, if the model or system upon which the change is based cannot be simply drawn then it may not be logical or complete or even understood.

If a proposed change can be clearly drawn to show how it improves the system then it can be compared with competing approaches. This kind of comparison is not possible if the level of numbers and words obscure the fundamentals of a proposed change.

My third heuristic is Reversing Good is Bad, aimed at managers who try to change the direction of something that is working.

The purpose of any effective improvement program (even one that is radical) is to accelerate all that is working about an organisation. It does not make any sense to do the opposite of what is working.

This kind of change was typified in 1998 when Ford's new CEO, Jacques Nasser, decided to reverse everything about the Ford Motor Company that was working fantastically well in order to pursue of some vague desire, "to be the GE of the auto business", which almost certainly really meant his personal desire "to be the Jack Welch of the auto business".

Result? He managed to turn the record profits and award-winning productivity of his predecessor into a 2001 net loss of $6.4billion.

If the impact of the change can't be simply drawn then be on guard. If it hasn't been created with the knowledge of those who are expected to it work then fear for the worst! If it reverses the best things about the organisation then worry.

These shortcuts are not the same as detailed analysis but they are powerfully simple. Taken together they can help stakeholders tell the difference between bad and good change.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.