In the ancient world, the idea of change was anathema. The greatest minds of the age, such as Ptolemy and Aristotle, saw the universe as a perfectly static system, and considered change – particularly the unpredictable variety – as an aberration that was limited to minor areas of existence.
Of course, we understand change as a fact of life in modern times. We will see far more change – in economic systems, political structures, science, technology and culture – in a year than those distinguished minds experienced in their entire lives. And, lest we begin to feel too self-important about how much change we go through in relation to those historic individuals, people living a century from now will likely regard our time as being as slow and backward as we now view Ancient Greece.
This issue will likely dominate the business world for the foreseeable future, though. The only change to all this change is that it will inexorably increase in amount and frequency as time moves forward. John Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and the author of several books on change (including, most recently, Our Iceberg Is Melting), maintains that in this environment, organizations must learn to adapt rapidly or they’ll cease being competitive.
“All the data says it’s just going to go up and up,” he said. “As things become more interdependent and interconnected, it just produces more change in the system. One little thing in one part starts to move, and all of a sudden, everything starts bouncing around. We’re going to see more of that: Turbulence in Hyderabad will affect people in Michigan who’ve never heard of Hyderabad. We’re going to see political events in Kiev affecting economic events in California. To me, this means that the more we can understand how to deal with this, the more it will help corporations, governments and general quality of life.”
Kotter added that this news shouldn’t blow anyone’s mind. As he put it, “This isn’t brain surgery. This is stuff a smart 15-year-old could figure out.” What concerns him is that, given this nearly universal recognition of the challenge of change, major organizational transformations seem to fail at an alarming rate. They do so for three main reasons, he said:
1. Change processes are frequently complex and thus difficult to properly execute.
2. People running organizations right now (mostly 50 years of age or older) did not grow up in rapid-change conditions, when experiences were most formative. Hence, they often don’t grasp the concept well.
3. There is a voluminous amount of “expert” commentary about change, and the cumulative body of knowledge is rife with contradictions and careless logic. To meaningfully study this issue, business leaders must sift carefully and critically through mountainous mounds of manure to find the proverbial pony.
“You put the three together and you end up with failure most of the time,” Kotter said. “It’s our estimate that 70 percent of change efforts never get started, die along the way or end up significantly below the original aspirations. You have to go up to the best 10 percent to learn what it takes.”
Next week, we’ll go over what Kotter believes are the keys to successful change.