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The Change Imperative


Disciplines > Change Management > The Change Imperative

Historical change | The Red Queen effect | The 'Reengineering' trap | Competitive advantage | See also


In organizations today, we constantly hear of the need for change, but is it real? Sadly, it is true. Change is here to stay - not that it ever really went away.

Historical change

Change always seems like it is new and going faster all of the time, yet history is full of stories of non-stop change. Roman Centurions complained about it. The Luddites revolted over mechanization and there were riots in the streets of Paris over Pascal's first calculating machine (which he invented to help his clerk father).

Wars, too, have always been hotbeds of change. Innovations, both destructive and good, abound. Organizations are ripped apart. Whole populations are changed forever. And change does not stop when people stop fighting in the streets - the battles just move to the boardroom, the office and the factory floor.

No matter. The bottom line is that many of us are faced with change that, real or imaginary, is a very real effect in our lives. Technology and science continue to revolutionize our work. The global economy means constant communication and lower prices (which translates into squeezed costs, salaries and people). Global politics, too, is not the polarized simplicity it once was, and even military domination is threatened by budgetary strain.

The Red Queen effect

The 'Red Queen Effect' is a term used by biologists to describe the evolutionary necessity to evolve faster than one's competitors, predators or prey. They got it from Lewis Carroll's 'Through The Looking Glass' (the sequel to 'Alice in Wonderland'), where the Red Queen points out to Alice:

"It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that."

Change managers have since adopted it from the biologists, and the message is still the same. In a highly competitive advantage, the company that comes second gets to pick at the crumbs of the dominant player. And in some competitions, there is no second place: losers quickly get picked off by their competitors or other predators.

The 'Reengineering' trap

When Hammer and Champy wrote their famous book, 'Reengineering the Corporation' (after the Harvard Business Review article 'Don't Innovate: Obliterate'), the word 'Reengineering' entered the business dictionary. However, many companies, rather than following the spirit of rebuilding their processes, used the term as loose cover for serious cutbacks and restructuring in which there was a significant lack of science and a noticeable focus on the short-term. The predictable effect was that they gained in the short term but shot themselves in the foot for the long term. Billions in real value were thrown away in corporate games. Even more was lost in the goodwill of the people affected, including the survivors who learned never to trust their companies again.

The need for change does not mean a need for blindly firing people (especially those who have a deep understanding of the company and its operations). People are, literally, the lifeblood of organizations, and treating them as predictable and disposable machines is both inhumane and bad for business. There is an oft-quoted statistic that around 80% of all change efforts, whatever their moniker, fail. People stuff is hard. People do not just do what they are told. They are not motivated just by money. If you are to change what they do on the outside, then you must also work hard at changing what they do on the inside.

Competitive advantage

Change is a capability, both of companies and its officers, for the first place where change happens is in the minds of the organization's leaders and managers. Beyond this, change skill includes both the design of flexible organizations and the education of flexible people. The 'inertialess' company can turn on a penny, stopping one thing and starting another in response to the twists and turns of their external context. Supertankers that take five miles to stop and more to turn are more likely to be a liability than an asset.

Change is more than a capability: it is a competitive advantage. Those who can do the Red Queen sprint and avoid the perils of the Reengineering trap, whilst motivating and energizing their people have a massive advantage will sustain them into the future, most likely paved with the bones of their competitors.

In a race without end, there are no winners, only losers. Change ability means survival. It means living to fight another day. It is an advantage that many seek and few find. The Fortune 500 changes with the day, and even the largest and most nimble can become complacent and ossify. In the words of Herodotus, 'The only constant is change'.

See also


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