Change in large organisations is frustrating. Leaps forward are followed by periods when change is either gradually or dramatically undone. Here’s how to ensure you are making progress & stay sane.
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.
Ozymandias – Percy Bysse Shelley
A Story of Change Unwound
I know the feeling. No outcomes of change projects endure. The world moves too fast. There’s too much uncertainty. Iteration is required. Change overtakes change. Always.
Launch a product and it will be shuttered sooner or later. Put in a new process, policy or system and the need for further changes begins to rise. Change behaviours or culture and more change will be required.
I remember earlier in my career taking on a role with an agenda and personal purpose to create a specific set of changes in that organisation. For the first 18 months, great progress was made. Then things changed. I watched as most of the change we had created was unwound. Why it unwound matters little. It was eroded piece by piece.
The Slinky of Change
Not surprisingly, I was disappointed. It seemed so much progress had been lost. It had felt like we were close to the end. I did not relish starting again.
Change takes determination and commitment. I started pushing again for the needed changes. To my surprise, I discovered what I had seen as a rollback was actually a spiral. We rolled back, around and up. The new efforts to drive change began further back than we achieved. However we had made progress. We began again higher up as if we had ascended a spiral, a slinky of change.
Why were we higher? The stakeholders had now experienced the first change. Some things worked. Somethings didn’t. We all learned from the experience. New language and experiences had been created that were the basis for the next effort. Moving forward again built on the experience of the first change. We did better this time. We moved a little further forward. We lost a little less but we still circled up the slinky again.
From that moment on my expectations of change progress changed. A few times you will have the joy of a straight line. Most of the time you are circling up a slinky. Iteration is part of the process for sustainable change.
Keeping on the tension
So how do you maintain your sanity and keep spiralling up a slinky? Make sure you are stretching the slinky with tension.
Keep tension with purpose: Give up your determination to drive change and you are going to go round and round on the spot. Keep your purpose clear and use that to push on with change. The effort ensures you go higher and forward.
Keep tension with new conversations: The signal you have gone higher is that you are having new conversations and new ideas are in play. Complacency and been here before are the enemies. When you are pushing into new issues and better ideas of progress, then learning is taking place. The tension of that learning is the platform for your next progress. If this tension is not in your conversations, then you need to bring it.
Keep tension with speed: The faster you go around the cycle the higher you will rise. Accept some iteration. Learning is part of the process and you don’t know all the answers. Accelerating the cycle, speeds your learning and that of your stakeholders.
Keep tension by stretching for more: Continuous improvement has to be the goal. There is no summit. When you get close to your goal, stretch it further forward again. Your stakeholders will now be more ready to go further. If you started trying for customer focus, make your next play for customer experience management, then holistic design thinking, then…learn and move up. You might be surprised how far this leads in time.
Keep tension by sharing work and lessons: The more people are paying attention as the change and rollback happens, the more learning occurs. If sharing creates a little conflict or discussion it helps. You will get attention. The more people watching the bigger the potential movement for the next change. Work out loud and spread any new ideas and lessons as widely as possible. You are seeding the tension that will help create the next lift.
If you are lucky enough to have a straight line of continuous progress to your goal that is great. If you despair at the process of rollback and iteration, look at it differently. The only enduring changes are the ideas and human potential created by the change process. Every thing else is going to be thrown away someday anyway.