Meaningful Change Takes Time

People often talk about change being “difficult.” However, change is simply part of the human condition, for individuals, families, organizations, and communities. What clearly is difficult in our “immediate gratification” society today is having the patience to wait for the results that planned change is supposed to accomplish. This applies to both individuals and organizations. In most cases, organizations are simply not organized to support transformational change. What they know how to do and measure is incremental change. As a result, neither culture nor structure are particularly good at supporting the generative process and outcomes that comes from transformation.

The phrase “fail quickly” came out of Silicon Valley and became popular a few years ago in the business world. The idea is that you can be more aggressive with risk-taking because if you determine quickly that an initiative has failed, you can end it and change course with limited exposure to the “failed” course of action. The notion of failing quickly makes sense relative to limited, tactical changes, but I believe that it has been frequently misapplied to transformative and strategic change. As a result, many organizations find themselves whipsawed back and forth from one new strategy or market initiative to the next without ever allowing enough time to determine if the strategy was effective to begin with! This is connected to an unfortunate focus in many organizations on quick wins rather than sustainable success, but that is another article!

One of the most profound mistakes of this kind I have witnessed was the decision by a career college system that presciently entered the online education world very early, in 1999. A new CEO came to the organization shortly after the online initiative was launched who thought online education was a fad that would never catch on. Rather than dedicate modest resources to the effort and show a little patience, he pulled the plug on what would have been the greatest growth and revenue generating strategy in the history of the company–and the organization would have been well ahead of the industry. Today that organization has contracted significantly and is on the verge of closing completely.

Certainly, there are “tactical changes” that can produce immediate results (or can be quickly judged). If a manager decides to increase the building thermostat for air conditioning from 68 to 72 degrees, electricity use will immediately decline and savings will result. Similarly, if he or she changes from one vendor to another there might be an immediate benefit in service or product quality or cost. However, when leaders make systemic, strategic or transformational changes, they must not only be prepared to wait, sometimes for extended periods of time, but they must actively nurture the change to see if it will produce the desired results. The reason is that transformative change, by its nature, requires a period of exploration, learning, and experimentation. This kind of change is not amenable to typical questions or evaluations of performance, scale, etc. in its early stages.

Additionally, changes in leadership, culture, organizational structure, and strategy are often necessary and critical to long-term success, but, unlike tactical change, they must be managed and supported with the understanding that it not only may take a significant amount of time to achieve results, but things may actually get worse initially as the organization adjusts to the new reality, particularly when people are evaluating the change through the typical incremental lens. The worst thing a leader can do is to put an organization or a team through jarring change, then alter course prematurely! When that happens, not only does the organization fail to achieve the desired outcome, but people in the organization have endured the stress and complication of major change without seeing a benefit. In such a case the manager then has to deal with a “failed” strategy and people who have become cynical about change itself!

So, in the face of material change, have confidence, be patient, and persevere long enough to truly assess whether or not the change will deliver the desired results!

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