Change Management Strategy #5: Two Pictures of Change
For any change management strategy, it’s important to identify how we and the culture we’re impacting conceptually picture change. This helps us manage expectations. While perhaps initially puzzling, the article “When in Chinatown, You Really Do Think More Chinese” (Harvard Business Review, March 2013 edition) helps by exploring the ways Westerners and Easterners picture change differently. I describe them as linear and cyclical change.
- Moves in a particular direction
- Has varying speeds, even halting at times
- Is a temporary phase between two states
- Has set principles, rules, guidelines making it work
- Appears unpredictable
- Has repeating patterns such as birth-life-death or as “history repeating itself”
- Is in constant motion
- Occurs even when we can’t perceive it
- Has principles, rules and guidelines that vary with circumstances
- Appears predictable if we understand the cycle
Analogously, we can combine the two as the lives of a man and a woman producing a child. That child lives on as a version (a change) of the parents. The child then goes through his own birth-life-death cycle. In this sense, we combine the progressive, forward feel of the linear change model with the circular feel of the cyclical one.
This combinative approach corresponds to the idea of creative destruction. For companies, this means reinventing itself by holding onto the good from the past (parents’ genes) and by incorporating the new (mutated genes) to thrive in the new world (which is also changing). This gives birth to a related – but different – version of the company.
These two pictures of change help us set realistic expectations, make change more predictable and reduce the uncertain anxiety workforces feel with change. In short, our change management strategy becomes more effective.
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Problems with both models for me! Nothing, especially change, is linear! Only if you manage change to keep more or less in the same direction. I suppose that would be unpredictable but for me, the odds are it will be less successful by a large margin than it could be. Since all problem solving (change) requires learning or considerations (http://johncbennettjr.com ), assessment will indicate revisions – different direction …
Cyclical indicates to me that it’s pretty much hands-off. No learning to facilitate and deal with newly developed options??? Change with no assessment or engagement in the process??? Yes, it’s predictable all right!!!! Predictable in terms of far less rewarding outcomes!!!
Change, as with all efforts, requires making choices!!! To me this means a “far from linear” problem solving approach – with significant self-assessment, much effort dedicated to considerations, the likelihood of occasional failures, and the willingness to revise the procedure when warranted.
John, thank you for the good thoughts as usual. If you combine the two models, you will get what you’re seeking I believe. Linear is meant in more the general sense akin to traveling a road. Few roads are straight. Most traverse in varied directions, but all roads tend to take us in a certain general direction (i.e north, south, east, west). That is what is meant by linear.
Cyclical doesn’t necessarily mean repeatable but rather containing patterns. Life & death is a pattern of change, so are the seasons. The scientific method is based on producing repeatable outcomes. So while patterns exist none are exactly alike. For example, it is a pattern of change that you wake up in the same bed every morning, but that doesn’t mean every morning is the same. It just means aspects of change are recurring. In business, a recurring change is the consolidation and concentration of providers as an industry matures.
It’s the cyclical nature of change that allows us to predict change much better than we think we can. Otherwise, all change, whether linear or otherwise would be random. It’s the cyclical nature of change that allows us to make some predictions about the maturity of a human being. Companies, being organic entities, have the same cyclical influences (i.e. going from a start-up to some scalable form by establishing processes, hierarchies, etc.). It allows me to predict that if I pour a certain amount of water on a fire, it will extinguish it. If I don’t pour enough, it will fuel the fire. When we say, “History repeats itself,” we are expressing the observation that change is cyclical.
We can also express this graphically, John. For example, consider the three dimensional coordinates (1,2,3) and (1,2,6). While the two are not exactly the same point, two repeat themselves. That is a pattern. One changes, that represents linear change, change along a particular direction. If I add (1,2,9), the pattern reinforces itself. Now, I could predict that most likely the next change would be (1,2,12). I might be right or wrong but I can make a prediction. Now, if I had received these coordinates earlier (1,2,7), (1,2,10), (1,2,13) and (1,2,16), and I had known this situation was similar, I would have a previous pattern to help identify what change might occur with the fourth coordinate in the first set.
Essentially, when we see patterns repeat themselves, that is an example of cyclical change. When we combine this with linear change, we can see companies’ progress as a series of ups and downs, many predictable and expected, but moving along in a general direction.
When we don’t learn from history, we tend to repeat it. It’s very often the cyclical nature of change that produces that. So, I can predict that if someone doesn’t learn from history, he will likely repeat it. Therefore, I can predict the changes that he will make, whether forced or unforced.
It helps to look at each model as making up either the x or y axis. You might not like either axis, but together they cover many of the points you mentioned. These two concepts of change have helped me much in my career to anticipate and identify the nature and direction of change that groups and individuals will likely face.
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