Why Change Is So Difficult

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Change: The mere mention of this word may cause some to feel uneasy. We often find ourselves resisting change, perhaps because of the perceived risk or fear associated with it.

So why do we have such a hard time initiating, accepting or following through with change? 

This is something that I’ve thought of many times over the years, and I believe the problem can be defined in one word.


Success.


Success in the past always becomes enshrined in the present.

It is this past success that has created an inflated view of the policies and attitudes which generated the success to begin with.  It is these attitudes, that in time, become embedded in a system of beliefs, traditions and customs which build the unique culture of each and every business.

And, they do not adapt to change very easily.

Frequently, this means that many businesses become prisoners of its own past success.

And this is not merely an opinion. There are multiple examples of businesses over the last 10 to 20 years who hesitated to change.

Kodak - invented the first digital camera back in 1975, but it was considered “cute”.

Nokia - failed to understand and grasp the concept of software and kept focusing on hardware because the management feared that it may alienate current users if “they changed too much”.

The list goes on and on.

Transformations, of any variation, are difficult.

But, it is these individual characteristics which become so much a part of the cultural DNA, that any effort to shift them is quite likely to be viewed as an attack upon the framework of the organisation itself.

Without exception, all organisations, like a living organism, must adapt to changes in their environment, or die. 

And all organisations do change when put under sufficient pressure, be that pressure from the outside (market forces) or the result of very strong leadership.

It is rare for any organisation to generate the required internal pressure from the ‘grassroots’ to produce significant change in direction. 

To do so, is likely to be regarded as a form of dissatisfaction with the organisation's leadership. 

To change by evolution rather than revolution, the change must not only be tolerated but actively guided and directed in very explicit terms by the leadership.

And, it is in this process that corporate leadership faces major dilemmas. 

The organisation's investment in the status quo is always a heavy one. This is almost inherent in the definition of a culture. 

Changes in policy and strategy are inherently threatening, creating a ripple of change across the entire organisation, triggering changes in objectives, values, methodology, status, hierarchy, and so on. Jobs, rank and many cherished beliefs are put under the microscope and into jeopardy.

Corporate culture tends to blind organisations to a need for change until the organisation as a whole can accept the reality of the need. But when the need is so obvious that the whole organisation can recognise it, competitive advantage in flexibility and speed of response has almost always been lost.

It is undeniable that not only the organisation, but the leadership itself, incurs considerable risk by commencing any process of transformation, innovation or change.

But, by definition the need for change is applied to decisions in the future. To be valid, the reasons for change must be based upon assumptions about the conditions and competition in that future. These assumptions in turn are based upon other assumptions. 

At some point, the need for information becomes so problematic and conditional that further fact finding and analysis becomes unrewarding, and the decision making process becomes almost completely intuitive.


All the forces of corporate culture are set against change

A study published in a 2018 HBR article, which surveyed 402 CEO’s reported that 50% of them found that driving cultural change was more difficult than anticipated and 47% also reported that developing their senior leadership team was surprisingly challenging.

This is not a criticism, but a realisation from my time in corporate roles, but also as a consultant working across various industries. It is a truth that needs to be stated…..and once named and accepted, you can take the positives from this truth.


And what are the positives? Well, the rewards can be substantial for those who have strong enough leadership to both anticipate the change required and manage the evolution of such change. And, this will be hard.

So, here are my take-a-ways. The competitive advantages of developing a superior change strategy will only be available to those which can make major shifts early enough not to be obvious to their organisation as a whole or to their competitors.

In my opinion, there are at least three major requirements of management who expect to outperform their competition:

  1. To identify and develop a superior strategy. 

  2. To provide the leadership required to overcome the obstacles to change. 

  3. To provide the leadership at a time when the business as a whole would ordinarily oppose the changes required. 

Are you ready to evolve?

John Stavrakis