January 16, 2008

Continuous change or revolutionary change – what do you prefer?

"Everything has to change gradually, and it is natural that this also means changes and development in Maersk Line."

This comment to borsen.dk by Mr. Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller, the 94 year-old shipowner, explains very well that change has become more or less a constant in the world we live in. External changes happen all the time, and they happen faster today than earlier. Therefore, wee all need to gradually change/develop/improve/get better.

I’d like to ask you which of these 2 kinds of change you prefer. It would be great if you also could tell about your experiences of change at the company / companies, you work or have worked for.

Situation # 1: Continuous change
Have you thought about how you get through, for example, an education with good results? If not, reflect a little on the famous quote of Mr. Thomas Edison: "Genius is 1 % inspiration and 99% perspiration".
In this regard, consider also how you get in good physical shape: It’s about training, training, and training. You’ll most certainly not reach the good results if you train just 1 month of the year – even if you train as hard as Rocky Balboa during that month. You reach the really good results by training continuously, i.e. practicing every day / more times every week for a longer period of time. Continuous change is the gradual, step-by-step way of renewing. In companies, that advocate continuous change, people permanently adjust/adapt to external changes. They challenge the status quo by constantly asking themselves and each other how things can be done a little bit better - in order to create more value. People try out new things – individually and/or in small teams. They learn, remain flexible and open to new possibilities. Change is, in other words, a natural part of the culture.

Situation # 2: Revolutionary change
Revolutionary change is different to continuous change. Revolutionary change is, as the word implies, the sudden, rapid, and dramatic change that, not least due to its radical character, gets a lot of attention – internally in the company as well as externally. Revolutionary change is shock therapy to a company – a “big bang” if you like. It’s often triggered by crisis signals, for example a decrease in sales and/or profit margin. Also, revolutionary change is change that is often commanded from the top - i.e. change being pushed through. For example, management announces one morning that x functions will be closed or merged, and that the workforce will be reduced by a certain number of people. Revolutionary change can be necessary to transform a company – for example a company that has become too rigid, bureaucratic, and slow moving. The problem with revolutionary change is, however, is that it spreads fear among many employees and managers – also among those who are not being laid off. These people might start thinking: "What happens next time the management decides to restructure the company? Will I then be the one who is fired?"
Unfortunately, this fear makes people defensive, resistant to change. Employees and managers start holding on to what they have, seeking stability and routines - instead of working for change. Therefore, revolutionary change is, after x number of weeks/months, followed by a stable state – which is then, again, followed by a new revolutionary change, when new problems start to occur because the company is not continuously adapting to external changes. In other words, the company bounces back and forth from periods of stability to periods of abrupt/sudden/radical change.
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