Saturday, February 19, 2005

Lasting Change with Slow Churn

"I want a culture change by Monday" now has competition--the slow movement. Slow food, slow cities, and slow living have caught the imaginations of millions worldwide. The creative destruction of downsizings and top down change management have not paid off in greater productivity. People are stressed out from too much change too fast. Despite the zeal and impassioned pleas of well meaning leaders, continual disruption has led to organizational paralysis and demotivated workforces. Enough already! Slow change is now embracing our imaginations as an idea whose time has finally come.

Leading the way in the slower life are the Japanese, reformed workaholics. After experiencing a high rate of "death from overwork" (karoshi) in the latter part of the 20th century, the Japanese, according to a recent OECD study, have significantly reduced hours worked per capita among people of working age without sacrificing productivity. In Canada and the United States, the hours are climbing. We haven't reached the heights of the Japanese during their darkest hours of overwork but the alarm bells are ringing.

"Repetitive change syndrome" as coined by Eric Abrahamsom at Columbia Business School in New York, is diverting employees attention from focussing on customers to "stick-handling" demands from the top for business process improvements. The "changeaholic" workplace is proving to be devastating to morale and employee health. As for all manner of living things, too much change may be pushing us to the edge of our biological tolerance.

The better approach is more organic and evolutionary--small scale change that leads to large scale adaption. Ontherwards, let the little experiments happen. See what works and then scale up. For example, principal Wayne Copp at Toronto's Baycrest School noticed students from low income families were falling behind in their reading ability particularly over the summer holidays. He solved the problem by setting up a summer literacy camp. His Board of Education took notice of the successful results and eventually rolled the idea across the city.

Wayne's intuitive sense of acting on an issue embodies an emerging awareness among great "change leaders". Don't try to change the world all at once. Find a solution to an immediate problem. Let the change sink in. Strike a balance between change and stability. Pace change. Counterbalance it with periods of rest to allow people to adapt systems and structures to the current new way.

Abrahamson adds: Go to your corporate "basement" and check out what you've got that can be recombined and redeployed to meet new environmental needs. Rather than "creating, inventing or purchasing something new", shift talented people into parts of the organization where their expertise is better suited to the new strategy. Instead of slashing and burning, "tinker, fiddle, jury-rig, bootstrap, cobble together and patch your way to effective change". "Change without pain".

Emerging research on change in organizations indicates that small changes reap massive performance increases. It mimics evolution in life itself. We are physiologically resilient. We are cautious in testing new territory. But after some experimentation and with proof of solid results, we move forward with gusto.

The slow movement is our natural response to being overwhelmed by waves of change without rest in-between. We can live better in an organization and produce outstanding results if we deal with the rush to change by slowing down. But at times slowing down may not always be the answer as the slow philosophy embraces doing everything at the right speed. It is a nuanced challenge for leaders.

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