A culture of change (first appeared in InfoWorld)
A month ago I mentioned how the transformation of muscle tissue into an electric organ in some fish exemplifies how evolution works — it morphs existing structures into needed ones. Several readers challenged the validity of evolutionary theory, describing my acceptance of it as naive. I’m perennially astonished that people who would never dream of […]
A month ago I mentioned how the transformation of muscle tissue into an electric organ in some fish exemplifies how evolution works — it morphs existing structures into needed ones.
Several readers challenged the validity of evolutionary theory, describing my acceptance of it as naive. I’m perennially astonished that people who would never dream of challenging the theory of quantum chromodynamics or Einstein’s resolution of the wave/particle duality of electromagnetic radiation are so highly opinionated about evolution — a subject just as complex, even if it’s more accessible.
To be fair, I don’t think there’s a subject taught worse. Every time you hear the phrase “survival of the fittest” you can tally up someone else who learned it wrong. It’s a shame, too, because once you understand how evolution works in nature you understand a lot about how change happens everywhere else. And if you haven’t been keeping track, change has become the one constant in everyone’s lives, so understanding how it works can come in handy.
Once upon a time we designed computer systems to mimic their manual predecessors. Our early systems didn’t change the jobs people did very much, only how they did those jobs. Although we encountered resistance, it was nothing compared to what we experience now, when the systems we deliver are embedded in fundamental transformations of our businesses.
You have three choices when you take on a massive change effort. First, you can think of your task as delivering software that adheres to the specifications. The technical term for this is “dismal failure.” It’s a popular methodology because you get to claim success while everyone else gets to go back to their farms and villages, avoiding the discomfort that goes along with abandoning old ways and learning new ones. If people actually used your new system, you’d risk finding out if it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Another option is to “manage the change.” This is basically an exercise in successful corporate politics, because the discipline of change management involves analyzing the victims and participants of the coming change and figuring out how to navigate through their sensitivities.
You need to manage change or change won’t happen, because people generally don’t like it. People don’t like it because they’re smart and understand evolution on a personal level. In nature, changes to the environment drive evolutionary change by changing what constitutes “fitness” — traits that used to be adaptive in the old environment become irrelevant or harmful in the new one. Business change is environmental change carried to our day-to-day experience, and as in nature, it makes traits that used to be adaptive irrelevant or harmful to our own future success.
If all you do is to manage change, however, your project will succeed but you’ll make the next change harder. In the long run, you either create a corporate culture that embraces change or you’ll create a corporation of listless and dispirited cynics.
IS leadership can’t single-handedly drive corporate culture, except within IS itself. (A hint: How good have your mainframe Cobol programmers been at adopting object-oriented technology? IS isn’t all that good at change, either.) As part of your company’s executive team, though, you can help shape leadership attitudes on the subject.
What’s needed to create a culture that thrives on change? It isn’t complicated. First, define the behavioral and attitudinal traits you’re looking for — dissatisfaction with the status quo, active interest in making things different and better, an entrepreneurial spirit, and so on. Then make sure you hire and promote people who exhibit those traits. Even more important, find new roles for them when you’ve eliminated their jobs through process redesigns or reorganizations. Employees will adopt the characteristics that help them survive and succeed. The company leadership gets to define what survives and succeeds — that’s how to make the culture evolve.
This, of course, means filling the company with mavericks, trouble-makers, and general pains in the neck. That’s why lots of corporate leaders say they want companies that embrace change but few actually have them.