Turning Change Into a Ho-Hum Affair

Tom Peters

The other day a colleague with whom I've been jointly giving seminars for years called to suggest that we substitute flip charts for blackboards at our next event. I raised a long list of objections, even though he uses the blackboards extensively and I never do. Nonetheless, after I finally yielded, I realized that this tiny change, this seemingly inconsequential disruption of routine, had upset me—a lot, to be honest.

I relate this somewhat embarrassing story because I spend my life preaching to managers and non-managers that, to survive, they must learn to love change. Well, I have to admit I hate change, even one as small as substituting an unused flip chart for an unused blackboard. No one I know, from the top to the bottom of any organization, likes change.

I still insist on counseling others to love change. We (Americans) must become improvement fanatics. We must constantly jigger and rejigger every procedure in our firms if we are to regain our competitiveness. How do I/we square this unequivocal need to love change—on everyone's behalf, not just senior managers'—with our very normal, even passionate, hatred of anything new and disruptive?

The answer is twofold: first, preparation. If there is a word that goes hand-in-hand with "love of change," it is training. The constantly re-skilled/up-skilled order-entry clerk, as well as first-line supervisor, can only master change (constant adjustment and improvement) if he is given the tools to deal with it. Training in listening, in statistical techniques and problem cause-and-effect analysis, in group problem solving, in sophisticated financial analysis (for everyone)—and then constant retraining, for upgrading and learning new skills—simply must become the norm, for realtor, banker, or high-tech wizard. Obviously, such extensive training and retraining has to be accompanied by radical surgery to existing action-impeding bureaucratic rules and rituals, which strip self-respect and just plain make it hard to get anything done.

The second ingredient is creating a new definition of what's normal. For example, managers must constantly be out and about, and on their rounds they must become obsessed with giving positive reinforcement (and avoiding the negative) for the tiniest effort to tackle something new.

Most readers of this column are managers. Many did not rise through the ranks. So it may be difficult to imagine how disconcerting a small alteration in, say, a phone ritual is for a receptionist or secretary. This is especially so in our conventional work environments, where "experiments" with new techniques by front-line people are about as welcome as a mid-winter flu epidemic. Further, every tiny adjustment to a procedure brings a host of tiny failures—leading to embarrassment and, worse, often paralyzing fear.

So the chief task for the manager is to reverse what is considered normal and abnormal. The idea is to make it weird to not be constantly trying stuff, and to not be working with teammates to remove hurdles and improve processes. Pep talks, which applaud small tries and even small goof-ups in pursuit of a little twist, must become almost an hourly staple.

I conclude, then, by laughing at my original idea about loving change. Yes, we must instill an ethos of constant tries. But the new source of stability and reassurance, the one overarching—i.e., non-changing—pillar of the new work environment becomes a process that consistently applauds and labels as routine the tries, and the heartbreaks and turmoil that accompany them. This highest order process (training, retraining, kudos for tries, etc.) becomes the invariant, thus counteracting much of fear associated with lower order, day-to-day change.

Sadly, most of our organizations have systematically suppressed the instinctive desire of average, front-line workers (and many managers, for that matter) to fiddle constantly with and improve things creatively. But on a more optimistic note, the idea of pursuing continuous improvement or change hardly goes against the human grain. Think back to when you were age seven or eight, and sitting in a second- or third-grade classroom. Almost every day brought spelling quizzes and math tests. And everyone was, as a matter of course, expected to get better—that is, to change. "A" or "B" or even "C" grades were not handed out for merely showing up. At that time in our lives, constant—daily change and improvement were beyond question. But we stamp out this fundamental disposition in most of our workplaces; change becomes the enemy and rote behavior becomes the most valued attribute in a front-line worker.

So the demand that we come to love change is no more than a plea to construct a workplace that becomes a full-fledged laboratory for learning and perpetual improvement, resembling nothing as much as yesterday's peppy classroom.

As for me, I learned a big lesson from the blackboard-flip chart incident that I reported at the onset. My negative reaction to the one tiny change was a great reminder that I had fallen into a routine and had gotten out of the habit of changing. A deeper look revealed that the seminar itself was stagnating; my reaction to the little disruption was a direct product of a deeper malaise. Time to go to work!

(c) 1988 TPG Communications

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