Lewis Carroll on Change Management

February 29, 2008 at 9:47 am Leave a comment

In Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen admonishes Alice with “in this place it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” So much for the concept of a self sustaining ‘Status Quo’.

Giuseppe de Lampedusa echoes this same idea in another, seemingly paradoxical manner, “If things are to remain the same, things will have to Change.”

All of this is true, there really is no argument. The status quo is a myth. The best we can do is identify what aspects of our organization we value today, and do our best to ensure that these attributes exist in our organizations tomorrow.

However, just because we have come to the inescapable conclusion that Change is necessary, does not mean that all possible Change is mandatory.

This is the great trap for those who embrace the idea that we must Change or Die. Unless we find some way to distinguish from good and bad Change, we are compelled to Change when faced with any and every innovation. In the already quoted Through the Looking Glass, there is sad character who has taken the Red Queen’s advice too literally, let me introduce you to the White Knight.

He’s an interesting fellow this White Knight. He believes in embracing anything that’s new. His mistake is to believe that all Change is mandatory. His sturdy horse is festooned with gadgets. There’s a little box in which he keeps his sandwiches, but it’s turned upside down, “so that the rain can’t get in” he says proudly. Until Alice points out that the sandwiches have fallen out, he was totally unaware of this flaw.

He’s also attached a beehive to the horse in the hope that bees will take up house and provide honey, not realizing that bees would never set up house on a moving horse. And then there’s the mousetrap he’s strapped on the horse’s back to keep the mice away, and anklets on his horse’s feet to keep away the sharks.

Yes we must Change, otherwise our organizations fall so far behind the competition, our constituency and clients, that we lose effectiveness and fade into obsolescence. On the other hand, to embrace every Change is the path to chaos.

Our problem, despite the many dinosaurs lumbering in the tar pits of yesterday, is not the lack of recognition that Change is necessary. It is that there is far too much Change to choose from, we suffer from too much choice and a scarcity of good decisions.

Organizations must become adept at three seemingly contradictory skills. We must become brilliantly effective at resisting bad Change, equally effective at embracing good Change and wise enough to decide between these two alternatives.

In case you missed my outrageous statement, I’ll repeat it in its pure form.

Organizations must become brilliantly effective at resisting Change.

Despite the Red Queen Principle, we should not and must not, for the sake of our organizations, embrace all the Change placed before us. Instead we must select the best Change from the panorama of Change facing us.

How do we do that?

The first step is to identify, as clearly as possible, why we’re here. What exactly is the role of our organization, and what must we do to continue fulfilling that role? We can give this a variety of labels, from “Statement of Purpose” to “Vision Statement” to “Services Offered”. It doesn’t really matter what we call this as long as it becomes something we believe in, and against which we can measure all proposed Changes.

This is the idea snuggled inside Lampedusa’s quote…

“If things(1) are to remain the same, things(2) will have to Change.”

things(1) – Refers to that which we do, which is important to our mandate.
These are the things which are of value to us, our constituents, and our superiors.

things(2) – Refers to all the other stuff that surrounds us, stuff we might become
attached to, but which in the final analysis, contributes little to the fulfillment of our mandate.

Therein is the key. Does a proposed Change reinforce, support and/or extend a previously established organizational objective? If it doesn’t, then enthusiastic acceptance, Red Queen Principle notwithstanding, is incorrect, improper and ill-advised. To paraphrase Lampedusa, to embrace the things we value, we must jettison what we don’t.

These are the first two steps. Identify what is valuable to us, and then measure every proposed Change against these core values.

The next step, is to determine how the proposed Change will fit into the context of our organization. In other words, what must Change in order to accommodate the new Change? If you’ve made it this far, then you are well into the first stages of implementing the Change.

At this point you know why the Change is necessary. i.e. what core values is it designed to protect, support or extend. This knowledge, properly communicated, will go a long way to reducing resistance to the proposed Change, especially if you are willing to make all the information which went into your decision public. Nothing is more effective at reducing resistance to Change than full disclosure… except perhaps being involved in the actual decision making process itself.

You now also have some idea what impact it will have on your organization. ie. What other things will have to Change to accommodate this Change. With all of this in hand, changing should not be too difficult.

The issue of Change is tricky. On one hand you cannot avoid all Change; on the other hand, you cannot embrace all Change. Which means we must resist the bad, embrace the good and know the difference.

Good luck.

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Entry filed under: Change, Change Management, Communicating, Communications, Leaders, Leadership, Management, Managing, People Sklls, Problem Solving, Soft Skills.

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