Shock the System:  The Science of Change

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order to things." — Niccolò Machiavelli

The Concept:

In the early 90s, fresh out of graduate school, I landed the job of “quality support specialist” at a Fortune 500 technology company. What is a “quality support specialist” you might ask? Good question. A “QSS” was a role designed to support the regional director in improving processes, analyzing process data, and improving overall organizational performance. As a QSS and it being the early 90s, we formed teams. Lots of teams. That’s what we did back then. Teams to analyze customer issues, teams to analyze workflow, teams to work cross-company issues with our business partners. I must have led (they called it “facilitated” – it sounds fancier) 20 or more teams in the two years I was in the role. Guess how many of these teams’ efforts led to lasting, meaningful performance improvement? I’m embarrassed to admit, not very many.

As someone who works in the “performance improvement” field, this is obviously more than a little frustrating. You spend significant time on these change management activities, and yet very little actually “sticks” and produces long-term results. After a few annoyed managers, a couple of aggravated team leaders, and team members who tremble and run when they hear the word “process,” you start to wonder: “why doesn’t this work?”

Later on in my career, as we have related in previous EIR’s, we DID achieve true improvement in a substantial-sized organization by introducing radical change, reinforcing that change with “guiding principles,” and communicating the results back to those in the organization. To this day, I’m not quite sure how we hit upon this winning combination – possibly it was our immense, unparalleled, big-brained genius for leadership, but more likely it was a combination of intuition and dumb luck. I don’t know – somehow it just worked – but I still wanted to know why it worked and how to make it happen every time…

Well, I didn’t find the answer in one of those “business-theory-of-the-month-club” books that everyone seems to rave about. I found it in two places – my own leadership experience and, of all places, the world of physics… The juxtaposition of these two unlikely partners led to a result that I had seldom seen in the process world – tangible, lasting performance improvement.

Here’s what happened: A few years after the QSS job, while browsing in a book store, I happened to pick up a book on how new theories in physics are changing our view of how things at all levels behave and interact. Among other things, the book illustrated a concept used in physics, biology, and other disciplines called “complex adaptive systems.” To keep it simple, in studying various systems – whether flocks of birds migrating south for the winter or African termites building a massive, complex mound – scientists have discovered some simple, key rules for how systems must behave in order to be highly successful. All complex systems follow the rules and all complex systems survive or perish based on how well they can adapt to their surroundings while complying with the rules.

As I was reading the rules, I kept thinking, “this is exactly what we did! This is what made our process changes stick! We focused on the ‘rules’ that drove our organization!” Through some combination of luck and intuition, we had witnessed the beneficial effects of the complex adaptive system principles in our own organization’s performance.

So then – what are these principles or rules that govern complex adaptive systems? How can the lessons of flocks birds and colonies of termites be applied to a human business organization and its processes?

The first rule of complex systems is to “shock the system.” In order to affect change in a system, you must create some sort of event that forces it to react and behave differently. Shocking the system is a notification that the old way of doing things is history and the new way is the only option. For flocks of birds, the shock may be the cold of the approaching winter. For termites, it may be floodwaters or predators causing them to seek higher ground. For business processes, the shock may be forced upon you (bankruptcy, major shifts in market forces, etc.) or you may need to create a shock that precipitates a desired change.

Inherently, most organizations simply do not want to change – they even have built-in mechanisms – methods, procedures, approval chains, sign-off requirements, etc – to slow the rate of change. This is not always a bad thing, but it does make planned change more difficult. In order to create lasting change, you must overcome the built-in factors that actively resist changes. You have probably experienced this firsthand in your organization. Let’s say you decide to implement a new web-based application for tracking projects in your business. What happens? Do people pick up the idea and begin using it as the new method for reporting, or do they mostly revert back to the old way of doing things? In our experience, the majority of people will resist change – even change for the better – and cling to that with which they are familiar. Science tells us that this is not only common, but it is a trait of all complex systems. Organizational systems have a build-in resistance to change - a natural desire to stay at a “stable” state, so don’t take it too personally when new ideas and improvements don’t get rapidly accepted.

Applications for the Executive:

Okay – so science tells us that complex systems – such as any business or organization - are naturally reluctant to change. However, in order to stay competitive, we have to change. How can we “shock the system” and ensure that process and performance improvements get implemented and not simply pushed aside? Here are the three steps to create a systemic shock that can help ensure successful change:

1.  Float the new ship

The first step is to implement the change. The key here is communication – the more people know, the more they are “connected” to the change, the more likely you are to succeed. Changes die when they are not communicated to any but a select few. We are big fans of “beta testing” your changes to a small group, but the key is to get the body of the organization on board as quickly as possible. Organizational systems change only when they reach a “critical mass” of people that act or believe in a certain way. If the critical mass is not achieved, the change will die and the organization will revert to the old behaviors. Float your new ship; get as many people as you can on-board, and then…

2.  Sink the old ship

Too often, managers will give people an option – accept the change or don’t accept the change. Complex adaptive systems teach us that one of the keys to successful change is the lack of a choice. I experienced this several years ago when the company where I was employed rolled out a new, more efficient, web-based tool for processing orders. The web-based system replaced a 20-year-old “green screen” application that required the users to remember a myriad of order codes and to type orders in a cryptic language that the system could properly interpret. When the management team implemented the new system, they left the old system in place and you guessed it – the employees refused to use the new system. Even after training, for people who had been entering orders the same way for nearly 20 years, the change was downright frightening. Given the choice of the old, inefficient system they knew versus the new, more effective system they didn’t know, they chose the old system every time. The lesson here is simple – don’t allow people to “choose” not to change. Unfortunately, this rarely happens. Time after time we have witnessed companies’ failures to eliminate the choices: managers that create a new “expense report” process, only to continue to accept the old-style of report; IT groups that run an old system and its replacement in parallel for years, and so on.

Organizations and people like stability. If you are trying to affect a major change, you must “sink the old ship” quickly and decisively after floating the new one.

3.  Evaluate the survivors

You have implemented a changed process and eliminated the ability for people to continue to use the old process. The next step is to evaluate who has accepted the change and who has not. Even if you achieved critical mass (you got enough people on the ship) and you eliminated all options but the new way (you sank the old ship), some people simply will not accept the change. They will complain, they will tell everyone who will listen what a bad decision this was, and they will sow the seeds of dissent. With these people, you must make a decision – can they be converted to allies of the new way or do they need to leave?

Years ago, one of my former employees was a “ship sinking survivor” who did not take well to the change. After we implemented a new, automated project reporting application, he wasn’t very happy. In fact, he referred to the need to report status using the new tool as “chicken-@!$% window-dressing.” And he was very vocal in his proclamations. Not quite the reaction I had hoped for. It would have been much easier to allow his team to revert back to the old way of reporting, but instead, we kept at it. I asked him to tone down his opinions a bit – which he did – but he still wasn’t a fan. It took time for him to use the new process and personally experience the benefits to overcome his reluctance. Before long, his group was the most effective, most efficient in the organization in their use of the new process. They even made suggestions on how to improve the application further. Today when we talk, he frequently mentions how great that process was and how he wishes they had it at his new company. Once converted, former “change-haters” can become your most powerful allies in your change efforts.

However, some people will not accept a change even after discussing the rationale, the benefits, and the value of the new way. This poses a significant problem, as one of two things will likely happen: these personality types will either derail your change, or the change will reach critical mass and embed itself in the culture of your organization leaving those who refuse to accept the change ineffective. Neither one of these is a very good option – (a) either the change fails or (b) certain employees are unable to fulfill their new duties. To ward off these two bad options, we recommend the following course of action. Upon recognizing disruptive behavior, you should immediately sit the employee down and explain the options: either the employee actively supports (and uses) the new process, or they find employment elsewhere. You might find this hard-hearted, but think about the possible consequences of letting this person continue bad-mouthing your efforts. If the poor morale spreads to enough people to derail the whole change effort, you risk the time and effort you expended on the project and possibly peoples’ jobs, if the project was key to the health of the business. Work with your people so they understand the purpose and the importance of the change. Insist that they use the new process instead of the old way. If they cannot or will not make the transition, they have to go. False kindness is the enemy of lasting process improvement.

True, effective change isn’t random and it isn’t guesswork. It’s science. Like me, you may not have realized all of the underlying factors that were in play when you experienced a successful change, but they were there, waiting to be discovered. All organizations are complex systems and all complex systems follow a core set of rules. A flock of birds, a mound of termites, a human business endeavor - it doesn’t matter. Understand the rules, and you can more effectively implement change in your organization. Shocking the system is just the first step.


About the Author:

Kevin Smith is a co-founder and managing partner at NextWave Performance LLC.

©2007 NextWave Performance LLC