Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Radical change rarely brings immediate improvement

After every radical change in an organization, there is a need for a phase of quiet thoughtful improvements. Expecting miracles from huge corporate reorganizations is a fallacy that leads to reorganization upon reorganization potentially resulting in complete destruction of the organization.

Have you ever played a game of Pac-man? It is a simple game where you control a little eater eating dots on the screen, while ghosts are chasing you. The game is an excellent mirror of business life in a changing environment:
  • In Pac-man, you are trying to improve your health at every step by eating a dot and staying out of the way of the ghosts.
  • In business life, you are making small changes to your products and procedures to sell more and stay out of the way of your competitors.
There is a further analogy:
  • In Pac-man, sometimes things get stuck. Ghosts are closing in from all sides, and there is no escape. At such a point, you can use the teleport: a panic key that takes you to a random spot in the scene in an instant.
  • In business life, sometimes things get stuck. Competitors are closing in and it seems there is no way out. At such a point the CEO will call (often quickly without consulting all those that are involved) for a radical reorganization.
In business there is an important lesson we can learn from the teleport feature in Pac-man: A teleport is far from a guaranteed save! It can bring you into a very dangerous situation. The goal of the teleport is not an immediate improvement in the flow of the game, it is to escape from a hopelessly stuck situation, from impending disaster. Directly after a teleport, you have to act and make steps to regain control. Similarly, in business a radical reorganization will rarely take you to a better situation immediately. A reorganization is meant to shake up the bowl and escape from a hopelessly stuck situation (often invisible to many of the employees). After the relatively thoughtless jump that has to be executed quickly to avoid an immediate game over, the organization will need to go into a thoughtful phase in which small improvements are made to optimize the situation.

If you realize that a reorganization has not brought you immediate gains, try to refrain from making further reorganizations. Instead, look for opportunities for small changes, and give it some time.