I remember seeing a poster on the wall of a former client, a large but rather slow-moving, slow-to-change corporation. They knew they weren’t agile enough, and the poster was called “20 Reasons Not to Change.” On it were things like this:
“I’m okay with how things are.”
“The timing isn’t quite right.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“We’ve tried something like that before.”
“I just don’t get it.”
“We’re already down the road on something else.”
“Let’s just wait and see.”
Those are the sounds of getting change wrong. You rarely hear those sounds in young, hungry, ambitious, entrepreneurial businesses. You begin hearing them as the company grows and matures and takes on new layers. If you’re not careful to create a culture of constant change—which paradoxically is the key to stability—you can easily wind up succumbing to something my client referred to as “Big Company Disease.” Big Company Disease is a deadly cause of stagnation, a killer of companywide change and innovation.
It happens when the business loses the original passion for customer-focused ideas and solutions. As more people come in to the company looking to make their mark, the natural tendency toward careerism drives actions intended to produce promotions and bonuses, which results in a program mentality. In other words, sell a program up to get more resources (bodies and budgets), whether or not it adds real value.
You can guess what comes next. Objectives now become focused on meeting budget projections. Company expenses then rise faster than sales, and add further complexity. That limits organizational effectiveness, requiring even more work to execute the program, leading to yet further requests for more resources. When costs swell, the leaders put the squeeze on to stem the tide. Speedbumps get erected, usually in the form of additional project approvals. Valuable ideas get iced along with circumspect programs. Eventually, the ability to flex, react and innovate—to change—is lost. And once it is, it’s really hard to restore.
I asked Seth Kahan, author of a new book called Getting Change Right, for a list of five simple things to NOT do or to avoid as a small company in order to pave the way for change to be embedded earlier in the life of the business, so as the company matures it retains the the responsive, adaptive, nimble capacity with which it was born. I was basically looking for an injection of antibodies to prevent the risk of catching Big Company Disease.
- DON’T mandate change. Spark it by making it more attractive than the status quo. Don’t push, create pull.
- DON’T close down contagious conversations, no matter what they’re about. If people are talking about something on their own, find ways to contribute to the conversation. Get it and spread it. You want those sticky dialogues to grow.
- DON’T invest in detailed project plans at the expense of talking to your MVPs, (Most Valuable Players). Forget your “secret evil plans” and just spend more time having great interactions with important stakeholders and cool people than plotting and scheming.
- DON’T keep people out of your conference rooms, lobbies, and offices. Encourage them to huddle, gather, and cook together.
- DON’T run away from logjams, bottlenecks, challenges, and obstacles. Be like the guys on the SWAT team: train with your toys to the point where you want something to happen just to try out your gadgets and your techniques.
One of the DO items from Getting Change Right that I think is invaluable is something quite simple and eminently practical, and entirely relevant to today’s small business. Seth calls it “Jumpstart Storytelling.” It’s actually a powerful, easy-to-use implement, face-to-face social networking process that drives the cross-pollination of ideas, resulting real-time organic collaboration.
It’s also the subject of my column next week.Matthew E. May is a design and innovation strategist, and the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. You can follow him on Twitter here.