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If you want real change, be rigid !


We probably don’t need another theory on change management, but we surely need a better understanding of what we think we know. In the context of change initiatives, we often see a situation where someone wants to push change proposals, and there are ‘resistors’ to that idea. The classic duel is when the people pushing change initiatives are ‘revolutionaries’ who won’t settle for anything short of a full-fledged change to overhaul the entire system and those resisting the change proposals are ‘traditionalists’ who would be better off tinkering the system here and there in a very planned and certain manner. In my view, that is the only real-world scenario worth studying – all other combinations of change agents, allies and resistors are comparatively manageable with some common sense and a give-and-take attitude (actually, give-more-and-take-less attitude)

In such situations, the most common advise given to the change agent is to show flexibility, adapt to the situation. I agree that flexibility and adaptability are the key to a successful change initiative, irrespective whether one is in minority pushing for a change, or a majority having the backing of senior management. Holding steadfastly onto one’s viewpoints often gets people branded as rigid and unreasonable. However, this is half the story.

To show flexibility is obviously critical, but to quote George Bernand Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. If we look back at history, most successful changes agents were the ones who behaved more like the ‘unreasonable man’ in Shaw’s quote than the flexible man. Jack Welch felt GE was in trouble when it was the #1 company in the world. Ricardo Semlar (of ‘Maverick’ and ‘Seven Day Weekend’), Henry Ford, Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, Steve Jobs, Google’s Brin and Page, Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Chester Carlson, Fosberry (the guy who questioned why to do high jump the way it was always done, and created the now famous ‘fosberry flip’) – the more I research, the more I find that greatest and most successful changes agents often defied conventional wisdom and embraced a highly ‘unreasonable’ path, and pursued their dream despite ambient negativity and criticism. Would we have the GE today had Jack Welch agreed to tone down his rank-and-yank, or his six sigma ? Chester Carlson’s invention of ‘xerox’ was rejected by over twenty companies, but he continued to believe in his ideas and eventually prevailed. When heartbroken and grieving parents of their only son, the young Stanford who died while studying at Harvard, decided to build a new university in his memory, the Stanford University, despite the dean of Harvard wanting it otherwise – they were all being ‘unreasonable’ in a bigger sense. There is a nice book I read, “Whatever you think, think opposite” where the author gives a great example of this: a fashion designer has to be, by definition, the most un-fashionable or non-conforming person – he/she can’t ‘fit in’ the crowd. To be accepted, a fashion designer must think of the most different ideas, most unfashionable which will be almost always in minority – only then will they be successful. Similarly, any new innovative product will bring a ‘disruptive force’, and hence an innovator’s dilemma is often full of tradition / compliance vs. innovation / breakaway thinking.

So, how is it that we bring real change in an organization ? When you are the top management, perhaps there is legitimate power that makes it easier, but how does an individual really bring about the change ? If you insist on your ideas far too long, you might fall out of favor. If you decide to be flexible, it might invariably mean toning down the scope or intensity of your change proposals, or both, which might nevertheless make sub-optimal changes happen, but is that really the change that counts ? I see merits and demerits on both sides, but find that real change only happens when you take an uncompromising position about what needs to be done.

Am I taking a very narrow definition of the word ‘change’ as in an epoch-making moment but excluding the millions of small-small ‘changes’ that might happen every now and then, and collectively they bring a big change ? Granted that lot of worthwhile work happens when people do such micro-changes, but do we ever get life-altering changes by adding such linear and incremental changes ? And if they do bring such life-altering changes, it probably takes a long time, is that the most appropriate approach ? 

So, if want change, any change, any infinitesimally small nano-change that serves no real value except to give a false sense of progress,  at any cost, be flexible. Adapt to the ambient constraints, and do that delta increment that is perhaps a non-event. Hope like hell that thousands of such micro-mini changes will one day change the world. Well, they just might, especially if one has not given up on them.

But, if you want change, a real change, at no cost, be rigid, absolutely firm in your vision and you shall face the deadliest armies of resistors, for the path of a revolutionary is like a minefield. And dance he must on this minefield. But, if you live to tell the tale, your tale will be written down in gold and count as something that happened.

When were you really obstinate the last time ?