Getting Value From Change

Good managers understand the value of change. Better managers understand that change can take time and is best applied in small, consumable chunks. An organization’s survival depends upon its ability to respond to environmental changes appropriately and efficiently. Those that are too late to see a change or have difficulty responding to change are not able to compete with organizations that are nimbler yet thoughtful about how change is implemented.

We all understand that change is going from the current state to a desired state. The path between these states is not usually a straight line but one that has a dip where productivity/efficiency/comfort/et cetera drops a bit while the reality of the change sets in. Working through this dip is a normal part of the change process. The line formed by charting performance/efficiency/comfort over time from current state to desired state would look like a J better known as the “J curve”. The J curve is an abstraction that describes the behavior of systems where improvement and stabilization first require a temporary deterioration in performance, frequently referenced in economics and political science. Commonly, we think of it in the phrase, “things are going to get worse before they get better.”

Many managers have been trained that big changes need to be put in place over great periods of time, assuming that change is hard, takes a long time and is a necessary evil that must be endured. Large, lengthy changes within organizations can be risky (e.g. multi-faceted, mission-critical system implementations). It can often be disappointing to find oneself in the dip of the J curve causing some impatient leaders to see it as harmful, wasteful, or simply taking too long, which in turn leads them to abandon the change. The challenge with an abandonment means that the current state shifts lower than when the change started. Over time and with accumulation of abandoned changes, the current state continues to erode. Graphed over time it shows a steady decline in current state performance/efficiency/comfort.

One remedy to this cycle is to shorten the J curve. In practical terms this means taking smaller, more frequent bites at the change. Over time, these small changes slowly but steadily improve the current state of performance/efficiency/comfort, usually more quickly than waiting out a large change with a big J curve. This shortened J curve approach helps change the mindset of participants such that the dip is not only tolerated, it is anticipated and even embraced as a necessary part of “continuous improvement.” Organizations whose cultures embrace continuous improvement are much more responsive to their environments and far less wasteful of time.

Change takes time. Larger changes require tolerance for longer timeframes, something which many organizations (and their leaders) lack. Breaking down changes into more easily manageable (and consumable) chunks reduces the risk that impatient leaders will abandon the change.