Two types of change are commonly experienced at work (or in life) – ‘incremental improvement’ and ‘renewal’. In a previous blog I discussed incremental improvements and change.
Sometimes this terminology gets muddled – people often talk about ‘incremental change’, as if this is to be expected and welcomed, but it risks us accepting uncontrolled or ill-considered changes…
… analogous to the experience of an untethered boat, without power or sail, bobbing across a choppy sea – at the mercy of external tides and winds and its own susceptibility to leak!
To cope better with change we need to anticipate it, by being proactive in improving our service before it is forced upon us and by getting everyone involved in shaping the change and being a part of what needs to happen. It is of course important to know which change to address and when and part of this is informed by involving people who know what is happening on the ground.
‘RENEWAL’, on the other hand, is a much more glamorous cousin; highly visible, demanding ‘out of the box thinking’ (I think this is the correct parlance) and often packaged as ‘strategic’. Each of these aspects can be very useful, but should be handled with care. Many of us will recognise the renewal approach as the preferred option of many a manager (particularly people new into a role):
One only has to think of a new football manager installed at a Premier League club, who ushers players out (‘dead wood’) and in (‘new boys’) for millions of pounds to ‘get the team into shape’, or to ‘have them working my way’. By the time THAT manager has been fired (often in a matter of months) another ‘new man’ comes in (they usually are men) and does the same thing over again. On occasion the ‘new man’ may re-install players who had previously been in the club, whilst offloading the previous set of new boys…and so the cycle continues. Coincidentally a sacking occurred in the Premier League this week; Chelsea’s manager was hired temporarily in March, formally appointed August and fired in November.
This is NOT to say that renewal is bad. Clearly at times it is vital – but it can easily be mis-handled. When well directed and purposeful, renewal is essential and can have significant impact. The caveat is that when it is not purposeful nor well-directed it is causes disruption (or worse).
So how do we avoid the problems? One major problem with many efforts at renewal and incremental improvement is that it is not really renewal at all, but simply an attempt at copying the previous experience of particular managers or other organisations. Whilst this appears perfectly plausible, attempts at applying methods from one place to another may not work. This lack of success is not just about people, but about the complex needs of different users (customer, clients etc), systems and the way that work is organised. Rather than copying, it is much better for teams to examine their users needs and the work they do to deliver the service. At that stage, use that new knowledge to make decisions about change – which may be incremental or may involve more significant renewal. Well-focused, well-thought out effort will enable change to have a better and lasting impact.
And as for meeting the changing demands of a vibrant, challenging world – what can we really do to be effective? Well, with the right effort and focus, even a tiny turtle hatchling can negotiate an ocean…
BBC Sport (2012) Roberto Di Matteo sacked by Chelsea after Juventus defeat, 21 November 2012
MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK.
Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.