Simon Wardley recently satirized the typical response of corporate IT departments to technology change as follows: Ignore, ignore, ignore, “no”, “no”, “I said ‘no,’ dammit”, “Oh no”, “Oh, f**k”. It reminds me of the classic Toys-R-Us TV commercial from the 1980s featuring children singing about not wanting to grow up. Resistance to change is not unique to children or to IT departments – it is a feature of every organization. How can you help your organization avoid being stuck, and instead drive change before it’s unnecessarily painful to “grow up”? The key is urgency. Growing up is a good metaphor for organizational change: both are normal, both feature resistance, and in both the stakes increase over time. Immature people, like immature organizations, do not reliably achieve their goals. And the longer that inertia dominates, the further behind they remain. Failure to adapt – getting stuck – can be fatal, as it was for the Eastman Kodak Company. In personal as in organizational growth the pressure to change – the urgency – is fostered by discomfort. To increase urgency you need to cause people to feel discomfort with the current state of affairs. John P. Kotter’s seminal work Leading Change offers several kinds of tactics to increase urgency:
- Show that the present isn’t working: Allow a crisis to happen, publicize poor results, force encounters with unhappy customers, publicize lost opportunities.
- Change the metrics: Create performance targets that are high enough and/or broad enough they can’t be reached with business-as-usual.
These tactics to increase urgency all work by fostering discomfort with the present. A client found himself spending inordinate lengths of time evaluating opportunities and procrastinating a decision on which ones to pursue. When I showed him how his lengthy decision process was limiting the number and quality of opportunities that presented themselves, he realized that he could grow his business significantly by streamlining this process. He saw the urgency of addressing the issue, we worked together to fix it, and his business has grown threefold since.
Creating a sense of urgency is the first step in a successful change program. Kotter describes further steps to a successful change effort, but urgency underlies them all.
Ouch! Now, change.