There are two unrelated news stories in the UK press this morning that have got me thinking about how it appears we need a really big crisis before change is easy to instigate.
On the one hand there is the terrible story of organisational mismanagement in the NHS in the midlands, and on the other the news that the Education Secretary is going to be watering down initial plans to reform secondary education. Put another way: massive disaster provokes fundamental redesign; marginal failure means that radical reform fails to get traction.
Herein lies the challenge: we only seem to respond to the need for deep-routed change when it’s a matter of huge significance, and pre-emptive revolution is very hard to manage.
In Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, her assessment of the Chicago School of Economics is that it used fabricated crises to force through unpopular reforms (The Falklands War in the early 1980s, and the subsequent Miners’ Strike are cited as two examples in the UK). In Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit it’s argued that at an individual level we are most likely to make significant changes to our own behaviours after significant life events (the biggest of all, apparently, being becoming parents), and that crises in organisations should be seized on as an opportunity for change rather than feared. It takes a massive jolt to disturb our individual or cultural habits.
It’s something I know I have used myself: in my last role, consolidation of mobile devices and the introduction of Cloud services was in large part instigated with the lever of the general economic crisis of 2008 onwards. Without the looming risk of reduced revenues from clients as spending slowed, I doubt I would have been able to achieve so much so quickly.
But is engineering crises, or taking advantage of the natural ones, the only way in which we can provoke revolutionary rather than incremental change in organisations? Does everything need to be done with the metaphorical blue lights flashing?
In the tech world I struggle to find examples where not: the great poster child for reinvention, Apple, really stemmed from its near-death experience in the 1990s. IBM’s move out of PC manufacturing when they sold off the business to Lenovo maybe an example. But I can think of a couple of significant mobile phone manufacturers who needed their market to be significantly stolen before talk of burning platforms and all became public and significant change begun.
Underlying this, though, is that it feels so negative that change is only really possible when disaster needs to be averted…