The unintended consequences of change

Just before Christmas, I made a lot of changes to my 2009 Apple iMac computer. I installed new memory cards and doubled its RAM from 4 to 8GB. I upgraded the operating system to Apple’s newest Mavericks OS. I upgraded Parallels, the software that allows Mac users to run Windows. I also bought a new external hard drive to back up everything.

I was psyched. My iMac was like a brand new computer. But I soon encountered a problem: It started shutting down for no reason. I’d be merrily typing away, creating spectacular content for one of my clients, and suddenly the screen would go dark.

I’m not sure what’s making my computer crash. Maybe I made too many changes too fast. Maybe I should have tested each upgrade before moving on to the next one. Now I have a computer that is in some ways worse than what I had before!

Jets in flight

Make sure your speed of change doesn’t exceed your capacity to change.

Managing change isn’t easy. Sometimes leaders try to change their organizations too fast. They want to do everything all at once. But too much change can crash an organization, just as surely as it did my computer.

When J.C. Penney CEO Ron Johnson was ousted last year after just 17 months at the helm, the conventional wisdom was that he tried to initiate too many changes at the ailing retailer. In an article in Forbes, Bill Ackman, Penney’s principal shareholder and the driving force behind Johnson’s recruitment, admitted that, “One of the big mistakes was perhaps too much change too quickly without adequate testing on what the impact would be.” He acknowledged that Johnson’s turnaround effort had been “very close to a disaster.”

This brings to mind what I would call the first law of change:

Change can have unintended consequences.

When I was upgrading my computer, all I thought about was how fast it would run and how up-to-date it would be. It didn’t occur to me that all those upgrades might not play well together.

Observers say that Johnson failed mostly because he didn’t take the time to test the impact of his changes. He scrapped Penney’s existing business model without having a proven model ready to replace it.

Of course, there are plenty of CEOs who make big, bold changes and are hailed as heroes. And we all know that if change comes too slowly, it can result in decline, even death, for a company.

So what’s the right pace for change? Some have argued for a balanced, “Goldilocks” approach to change management: Not too much, not too little; not too fast, not too slow—just the right amount of change to fit an organization. In other words, your speed of change shouldn’t exceed your capacity for change.

Leaders must walk a fine line. If they move too fast, they risk making mistakes, alienating key stakeholders and leaving their teams behind. If they move too slowly, they miss opportunities, bleed talent and risk possible extinction at the hands of faster competitors.

What’s been your experience with leading or participating in change?

For my part, I think practicing some of the “C’s” associated with sound change management helps a lot. These include:

  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Compassion
  • Commitment
  • Choice
  • Community/Common purpose
  • Critical thinking

Critical thinking is definitely a key one. If I had thought through my computer upgrades a little more carefully, I might have avoided those random crashes. Instead, I find myself clicking the save button and keeping my fingers crossed.

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2 Responses to The unintended consequences of change

  1. Mike Bizer says:

    Well said – I think a key piece in change is ‘Vision’ (gotta find a ‘c’ word for that concept). The vision points to why the change. Also, if a new leader enacts change too slowly, the organization can ‘assume him into the Borg’ to coin a sci-fi phrase. But too quickly, and no one has time to ‘grab on’ before they’re left in the dust….and then they become anchors.

    Also, if you haven’t tried it, pull out and reset all the hardware you put in your Mac. Could be a poor connection.

    • Jay Morris says:

      Mike, you make some great points about change. Thanks for the tip about the computer connections. Thankfully, the incidence of crashes has gone down, although still a pain when it happens. – Jay

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