To be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing – Raymond Williams
Change is not always a good thing.
As I write this, I have in front of me a shark tooth, allegedly a fossilised one, that we saw in a London market.
The little card that came with it says, “FOSSILISED SHARK’S TOOTH. From the species Otodus Obliquus. A cousin of the Great White Shark, this species is estimated to have grown to as much as 30 feet long. Found in Morocco. Circa 50 million years old.”
Sharks have done very well out of refusing to change one little bit – they’re pretty much the same as they were 300 million years ago, single minded killing machines, from the age of the dinosaurs.
But most other creatures have had to change – to adapt or die.
What about organisations or even individuals?
Are we different? Are we subject to different rules or do the same forces inexorably act on us as well?
I came across a 1992 paper by Heather A. Haveman titled Between a rock and a hard place: Organisational change and performance under conditions of fundamental environmental transformation that looks like it might have some interesting ideas.
The first point Haveman makes is change in organisations is limited by inertia.
Inertia is a tendency to stay the same, to not change, to leave well alone.
There are lots of factors that contribute to inertia – but they all come down in the end to people – because the people in the organisations are the only ones that can decide to make change happen.
And they don’t because they’re comfortable where they are, or have created rules that enable some things to happen and stop other things from happening.
For example, almost every organisation you come across will insist on a payback on a project of under two years.
Why two years?
Well, it’s probably because most investments the company makes are in things that wear out after a few years.
If you buy a machine that does a lot of hard work – then there’s a good chance you’ll need to replace it as some point.
So what you want to do is make sure that it makes you back the money you’ve spent and then some so you can make a profit.
But the two years starts being used to look at every opportunity the organisation has and anything that’s over two years gets thrown out.
It’s now a rule, something unbreakable, so people don’t even try bringing up such projects.
And a some of the time such an approach is fine.
Not that long ago retailers probably thought that as long as they invested in their stores and made sure it was a pleasant experience the shoppers would keep coming.
Investing in this whole new-fangled Internet store thing was too expensive, too complicated and didn’t meet the investment criteria.
They were happy in their little world.
Until the world changed around them.
What happens is that animals that have evolved to fit a niche are perfectly happy until their niche disappears – and they tend to disappear as well.
Organisations and people have an alternative – but it’s not an easy one.
They can change when they have to but Haveman argues that it takes the same amount of effort as it does to set up a new organisation.
That’s because it’s like setting up a whole new nervous system – creating the roles and information flows and communication protocols that enable the organisation to operate in a changed world.
And there’s a risk to doing that – a risk that it won’t work and a risk that the organisation will fail.
On an individual level the same things apply.
You might have spent a significant chunk of your life learning to operate heavy steel making machinery and then the whole business just disappears – and you’re left with skills that no one needs any more.
At what point should you have thought about changing?
This question is, quite frankly, one of the hardest ones around and I don’t have a simple answer.
But, if you don’t think about it you’ll end up in a place a little like the person in the picture above, hanging by your fingertips to a crumbling ledge while sharks circle below.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to end well under any possible future.
Perhaps you should just give up and let go?
But that’s not what an animal would do.
An animal would fight to the very end – until it was entirely defeated.
For people and for organisations – the equivalent is to, as Williams says, make hope possible.
Because all change happens in the minds of people – and people will do amazing things when there is hope.
Which is why that is the first thing you must create if you want to make change possible.