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The Change Trap!

Ever felt as if you are pushing forward, yet moving backward? Well you are not alone. In change, as in life, we can always try too hard.

I have experienced personally environments of chronic organisational change, ie change becomes a relentless way of life with the resultant insecurity and fall in results (however you measure results). So what happens when the results are not what is required? Well, you change things.

And there is the rub! Personally I once had eight managers in two years due to reorganisations and have seen groups reorganise six times in the same period only to end up essentially the same as they started. This happens too often to be accidental so as is my wont I try and explain things ie why it happens that way. I also try to visualise what is happening and thought I would share some of those insights here. The first is why does it happen? Well it is heavily built on self-preservation and feeds on itself. Take the scenario where a new head of department is appointed and briefed that either

a) things are wrong and need fixing or

b) things need to move on/improve from where they are.

Broadly they have two choices:-

  1. Accept the people and structures they have, arguing that any development required will be incremental and there is no need to undertake a "root and branch" change; or

  2. Look to "root and branch" change, leaving nothing sacred or intact - people or processes.

The outcome is binary too, success or failure. If the manager adopted option (1) and succeeded then that is probably fine, but it might have happened anyway. If the took the same option and failed they will leave themselves open to criticism and possibly being fired. In the same what if they opt for (2) and succeed then they are the brave hero, and, if they fail, well at least they tried. When looked at this way the less risky personal option is to change things and this becomes a learned behaviour. It is often also the easiest route because people are expecting you to do just that. Deciding to work with what you have is likely to attract criticism and doubt from the get go. So that is why these things happen, but can we visualise the effect and explain how destructive it can become. Well I start with a standard curve like so

This can represent performance (however you wish to define it) as a result of change. Initially the change introduces unknown elements that have to be learnt/assimilated and tuned. This usually creates an initial dip in performance, but as familiarity and expertise grows then so does performance, back to and past the original levels. This is likely to continue for a while, but will eventually start to flag as the organisation becomes complacent and the world changes making the current system less relevant. If it goes in long enough then performance can start dipping too as the mismatch between organisation and world increases. This type of curve is seen in many aspects of management thinking. The trick is to initiate a change before performance growth slows too much; something like this

In practice the real world performance would be more like the black line in this.

Each change has an initial dip in performance, but this is recovered and built upon, creating an average performance growth trend shown by the red line. This doesn't look too bad, but what if you change too frequently? well that means changing curves earlier in the cycle. At a simple level it could look like this?

If you do this then the trend line drops and you achieve less than previously. Taken to an extreme the trend line can dip below the horizontal like this

Now this is a simple visualisation, but contains some essential truth. We can look to minimise the drop in performance or its duration, but broadly speaking as long as you change before the peak, the more often you change, maybe through lack of patience or, as we said before, self preservation, the worst the performance improvement gets. The irony should not be lost on the reader that these changes are almost always intended to improve things, yet will often have the opposite effect. Now if you consider that the trend line management usually seeks looks like this .......

.......... have a think about how the change curves can help us achieve it?

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