Why the change doesn’t stick?

Continuous ImprovementThere are several professions (Process Improvement Engineers, Business Process Analysts, Organizational Development Specialists, all Six Sigma and other Lean followers) that specifically deal with bringing change and progress into organizations, helping companies to secure their chance for a long term survival. However notwithstanding the pride and sense of accomplishment that this activity brings, many change practitioners are frustrated or I’d rather say perplexed with the understanding that the improvements don’t stick around for as long as one would hope for, even when the process of change implementation went OK. One could easily understand the frustration of all those who put their soul into making the change possible, solemnly believing that this change would lead to continuous progress, then discovering that the effect was only temporary. There are a lot of discussions online and off line around the subject of “why change doesn’t stick”,so I felt that this subject is important enough to deserve further comment. Especially that I plan to discuss the most important subjects of Change Management and Continuous Improvement in this blog.

For starters, let’s try to remember that there is nothing more permanent than change itself. We are not living in a static world, but in one that’s constantly on the move. Because it’s a world driven by competition and competition is a constant race.  To be sure, inducing a change is hard, because we are working against the system’s natural inertia; however, it would be naive to assume that once the change has been introduced, the system will just accept a new static position. The truth is that the transitional period never ends, as the system cannot ever restore its initial state after being disturbed by the change. And this transitional stage will require even more coordination and constant work. So my point is, that the expectation of having a static state (i.e. time to rest and do nothing) “after you bring change” is completely unrealistic. And it’s actually a good thing.

Did you know that there was an actual revolution in the world of fighter jets in the 70s’? Up until the introduction of F-16 “Fighting Falcon” it was in the bounds of basic common sense to make airplanes aerodynamically stable, meaning that they tended to stay on the course if left alone. But modern fighter jets have to dodge guided missiles in a blink of an eye, and it would be much easier if they were inherently unstable, because overcoming your own inertia takes too much time. Of course staying in the air while being unstable takes a lot of coordination, but that is exactly what we have computers for, don’t we? So, since the F-16 most fighter jets are made aerodynamically unstable, ready to maneuver at the moment’s notice due the simple understanding that in severely contested environments you don’t need complete stability!

No organization can stay unchanged; the only question is how big are the fluctuations of change that the company is able to undertake. The success of change could be measured by how far those fluctuations are from the optimal path, much more dependent on strategy and organizational culture than on operational matters such as number of failed projects. Yes, some projects will not go exactly as planned, however any endeavor will bring a new spin of change to organization – this why this process is called Continuous Improvement.

Continuous improvement is not a rigid path. It’s a long sequence of trials and errors (as any other process of evolution), while some processes just could be more guided/coached/led than others. To make a conclusion whether the change has made the contribution it was destined to make requires an analysis spread over a considerable period of time. Many changes bring counterintuitive results, which could be truly evaluated only in conjunctions with additional factors.

So to sum up, change is never going to “stick”, but it will come to pave the road to further progress and to serve as a next step in the evolution of the system. By expecting companies to stick with the change we practically are depriving them from the mere advantage of being unstable enough to perform the next maneuver quickly enough. Having in mind that change is only a step towards the next change in line, the right questions that should be asked are “how to ensure we leveraged current change to its full potential?” and “when is the optimal time for the next change to be introduced?

I hope that this simple understanding will make your efforts to introduce and sustain changes in your organization somewhat easier. If you are the one who has to deal with this frustrating subject – do not worry. Just think of yourself as a fighter jet. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Why the change doesn’t stick?

  1. Anya:
    I don’t see continuous improvement as an evolutionary process.
    Continuous improvement may be performed through evolutionary or design processes.
    Evolutionary change is random and very inefficient. Design based change relies on objectives, plans and measurements. When done right, design is faster and more efficient than evolution.


  2. Fungus, thanks for your comment, we see it eye to eye. Evolution does not mean better, it only means changes, while Continuous Improvement is a discipline that strives to lead and maximize the benefits of those. Continuous Improvement, more than other domains, is focused on self-awareness and result oriented approach.

  3. Thank you for this intake on Change. It reflected very well my thoughts on “Conintuous Improvement” and what I would have like to have achieved on a most recent project with a small company where the idea of change was initially welcomed: The change in several processes was greeted and mutually worked on with the team, and when implemented raised many eyebrows and “Is this really necessary”-comments surfaced regularly. In the end the change was perceived as a threat, where Management felt that exposing previous practices demonstrated their “outdatedness” which was not only embarrassing to them, but could possibly reveal even more such situations. With many additional excuses, the project was laid to rest, shelved for whenever they might be ready. It was to be a change for the better – but with no internal company support a project cannot be successful. Change is good, but only as good as those who believe in it.

  4. Indeed Felicitas! Thank you for your comment and especially for this sentence “Change is good, but only as good as those who believe in it”. There are so many misconceptions and hard wired predispositions that Change Agents have to overcome and my hats off to those that continue doing that. Short-sightedness in decisions, as you described, unfortunately proclaims many great changes as failed projects, while in reality the root cause was nothing, but fear.

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