One of the very first articles in the very first issue of Fast Company, a magazine I started 20 years ago with Alan Webber, is a smart and entertaining list compiled by E.F. Borisch, product manager at a long-established outfit called Milwaukee Gear Company. Borisch's article was titled, "50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change," and it offered a clever and entertaining collection of objections to and worries about the hard work of making real progress. Reason #1: "We've never done it before." Reason #4: "We tried it before." Reason #13: "Our competitors are not doing it." Reason #17: "Sales says it can't be done." Reason #18: "The service department won't like it." Reason #45: "We're doing all right as it is." Reason #50: "It's impossible."
Now here's the punch line: E.F. Borisch compiled his list back in 1959, and published it in an obscure journal called Product Engineering. What we found so amazing about the list when we reprinted it in 1993 — and what remains just as amazing 20 years later — is that most leaders in most organizations face precisely the same set of worries and pushbacks today.
The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same.
So what have we learned in the twenty years since Fast Company was created, or the 54 years since E.F. Borisch compiled his list? Let me suggest five simple principles to change how we make change:
1. Most organizations in most fields suffer from a kind of tunnel vision, which makes it hard to envision a more positive future. That's why the first principle of change is originality — for leaders to see their organization and its problems as if they've never seen them before, and, with new eyes, they need to develop a distinctive point of view on how to solve them. All too often, especially in long-established companies, expertise gets in the way of innovation. That's why the most effective leaders I know aren't big fans of "benchmarking" — a commonplace exercise for inspiring change that often serves to reinforce the problem of tunnel vision. How enlightening is it, really, to learn from the "best in class" in your industry, especially if best in class isn't all that great? So why not learn from innovators outside your industry as a way to shake things up and leapfrog your rivals?
2. In troubled organizations rich with tradition and success, history can be a curse — and a blessing. That's why the second principle of change is to break from the past without disavowing it. Psychologist Jerome Bruner, in his collection of essays, In Search of Mind, has a pithy way to describe what happens when the best of the old informs the search for the new. The essence of creativity, he argues, is "figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think." The most effective leaders I've met don't turn their back on the past. They reinterpret what's come before to develop a line of sight into what comes next.
3. The job of the change agent is not just to surface high-minded ideas. It is to summon a sense of urgency inside and outside the organization, and to turn that urgency into action. It's one thing for leaders to use fresh eyes to devise a new line of sight into the future. It's quite another to muster the rank-and-file commitment to turn a compelling vision into a game-changing performance. My friend and Fast Company cofounder Alan Webber puts it well. Progress, he likes to say, is a math formula. It only happens when the cost of the status quo is greater than the risk of change. That's why the third principle of change is for leaders to encourage a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo, to persuade their colleagues that business as usual is the ultimate risk, not a safe harbor from the storms of disruption.
4. It may be lonely at the top, but change is not a game best played by loners. These days, the most powerful contributions come from the most unexpected places — the "hidden genius" inside your company, the "collective genius" of customers, suppliers, and other smart people who surround your company. That's why the fourth principle of change requires a sense of "humbition" among leaders — enough ambition to address big problems, enough humility to know you don't have the answers. When it comes to change, nobody alone is as smart as everybody together.
5. Change is as much about consistency as it is about disruption. Pundits love to excoriate companies because they don't have the guts to change. In fact, the problem with many organizations is that all they do is change. They lurch from one consulting firm to the next, from the most recent management fad to the newest. But the more things change under these ever-changing conditions, the more they tend to stay the same. Jim Collins puts it this way: "The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change. The signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency." And that speaks to the fifth principle of change: If, as a leader, you want to make deep-seated change, then your priorities and practices have to stay consistent in good times and bad times.
Here's wishing you well in the defining work of our time — the hard work of making deep-seated change in long-established companies. And here's hoping that twenty years from now, E.F. Borisch's list of "50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change" doesn't ring as true as it does today.