Changing the System – Radical vs. Incremental Change

Change management is an ongoing concern for all management professionals. The problem is – change is not just hard to create, it’s also a slow process. Ignoring that reality can have some very unfortunate consequences.

I want to start this with a link to an essay in the New Yorker on Tunisa after the Arab Spring. See: 

I am sharing this because while the intentions behind the Arab Spring were good, what happened next has not been. Even though this is an election year, the point of this essay isn’t to blame anyone for what has happened.  Rather, the lesson I want you to learn is this: when creating change, it’s not enough to remove the people at the top. A societal’ s structure is multilayered and deep. To change the system, you can’t just change people at the top, you have to change the system. And to do that – you generally have to work within the existing system to reform it.

If you just get rid of the existing system and the people who used to run it – you create a vacuum. That vacuum will be filled by groups and people who are organized or who have the money to become organized quickly. In the case of Tunisia and other Arab Spring countries – that vacuum was filled by religiously extreme groups.

Good Intentions Aren't Enough

Good intentions are never enough. If you want to be successful, you have to have a plan. This is especially true if you are fighting corruption or anything where a lot of money is at stake. If things were corrupt under the old system, they will be corrupt under the new system. Either you will just replace the people heading the corrupt system. Or, you will eliminate the system and the people with money, the people who are corrupt, will use their money and influence to create a new system that benefits them.

In order to successfully get rid of that corruption, you need to have a plan on how to replace and restructure all systems before you start.

This is also true of organizations. Organizations are multi-layered and deep. One change in one part of your systems can impact others. Nowadays you probably have a data management system. And it’s probably inadequate, but If you change some of it – you now have to work to integrate that change with all the other systems and processes that talked to the original data set.  There is a reason why people are still using windows xp computers despite Microsoft no longer supporting it. Changing to another system can cause so many cascading issues, most of us didn’t want to deal with it at all until we were forced to by say – our computers dying.

Getting Rid of Old Systems

But I digress. Let’s get back to the question of change.  If you just get rid of the old system – you can cause chaos. If you don’t have a plan for how things will get done – and a new system ready to go – people will create a new ad hoc system to fill in the vacuum created by the disappearance of the old system.  And this new ad hoc way of doing things will be just as ineffective and intransient as the old one.

I understand the desire for change. And I understand the immediacy of change. But if you have existing systems and aren’t building things from scratch – change will be slow and it’s best to accept that reality and work with it – rather than fighting it. Don’t fall prey to the new quick and easy fix. It’s a fantasy that will most likely result in bad things happening.

In politics, examples of radical change creating peace, stability and good jobs – is non-existent. Why? Because of the instability that getting rid of all societal supports creates. Without that support society devolves into chaos, and the vacuum is almost always filled by either corrupt new systems or ad hoc systems that don’t always work well.

Take it One Issue at a Time

In business, the same is true. My advice, if you want to create real change, take one thing at a time and change it. Don’t get bogged down in the grand overarching issues. Focus on one thing. Solve it. Work on the next, solve that. Just make sure that as you change things, you understand what other things are impacted by that change! And plan for how you want staff to deal with the process vacuum that is created by that change.

This is why - as much as we find policy and process wonks annoying, they make the best change agents because ... they understand how the existing system works and doesn't work and how to tweak things so that they can work better without creating a lot of disruption. Embrace your wonks. Become a wonk. Wonks can change the world.

If you want to know more about how to create a strategy for change that will really work - check out my course - Why is Change so Hard?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...