Saturday, 2 June 2007

At What Pace Can You Manage Change

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There is no doubt that the pace of change in society as a whole is relentless. This of course means that in business we have to strive to improve the ways in which we operate ever faster too. But what approach should we take to improvement? Continuous Process Improvement as suggested by the TQM approaches of old, Step Change improvements or just go for the "Big Bang" approach"?

This is the question nagging at the minds of many in the area of Business Process Improvement and it all boils down to two points. Firstly, the level of disruption you or your market can take and secondly, what your perspective is. As we shall see strong corporate performance in the future is likely to be based on your ability to manage all three at the same time, both inside and outside your organization.

The pace at which we can manage change will vary according to company culture, people and markets. The challenge will be in understanding and being able to apply such understanding in the smartest way possible.


At a recent conference I found myself in quite a heated debate with another delegate over the difference between a "Big Bang" change and a "Step Change". After a long discussion it turns out that we both did in fact agree with each other, it was just that we were talking about completely different things! They were using "Big Bang" in the context of a project causing a switch from process A to process B and were meaning that "Big Bang" was referring to an absolute switch from A to B at a specific point in time, whereas I was referring to a "Big Bang" as something that completely changed a market, e.g. caused massive disruption in the market – something like Amazon creating a whole new way of buying books via the web and the way in which that affected traditional booksellers.

So as we see, the first thing we need to establish when seeking to make change is whether we are looking at it from a market, company or project perspective. In all cases we still will make use of the three levels of change – incremental, step and "Big Bang". This differentiation is especially important in communicating change. As my debate illustrates we were both arguing the same thing, it was just that we had not put context into our discussion. Process professionals will need to be clear when communicating such changes as this context will have a major bearing on the receptiveness of an audience. As you might expect people will be thrilled by the benefits that might come about by "Big Bang", especially if it affects others and not them! Those same people are also more likely to prefer the idea of incremental change if it involves major changes to the way they work.


Whether it is a word that people like to see or not "disruption" is the key differentiator between the three levels of change. Quite simply incremental change implies minimal disruption, step change implies some disruption and "Bing Bang" implies major disruption.

The levels and benefits of disruption desired will depend largely on your perspective. When it comes to your markets the more disruption you can cause your competitors then the more you can gain from the market. Smart companies will be constantly looking at ways to apply disruptive solutions and make it as near impossible as they can for competitors to catch up with them.

But, if you are looking inside a company then whatever the productivity or cost benefits you desire you want to minimize the real levels of disruption from a people perspective and to ensure that you allow any changes to bed down before moving on.

When looking at your customers there is a fine line to be drawn between disruptive changes that they might appreciate, things that make it easier for them to buy or get service from you and those that take them into areas that they are not comfortable with yet e.g. switching everyone to online or telephone banking and doing away with branches.

Incremental Change

It goes without saying that in all aspects of all businesses incremental change is simply a necessity of life. It is simply not good enough to keep doing the same things as we always had. We have to do what we do ever better and we have to deliver ever better products and services to our markets and customers. It should be taken as a "gimme" that the culture in modern organizations should be adapted for such change.

However in reality even such minor change seems to cause disproportionate levels of disruption. This is probably due to mainly to a lack of communication on the part of management. Truly embedding it as part of culture probably requires not much more than providing people with insight, involvement and communication.

Of course from a project perspective what might be seen by a company as incremental may in fact be seen as a major step change to the operators of staff directly associated with it and so when planning a project role out consider whether greater emphasis in the training needs to be placed on gaining commitment from the staff involved.

In automotive terms an incremental change might be typified by the introduction of a new model year version of a car.

Step Change

In automotive terms a step change might be typified by the introduction of a completely new version of the same car.

Big Bang Change

In automotive terms a big bang change might be the introduction of a complete range of gas powered cars.

Rest and Relaxation

The key to managing pace

The primary factor in managing change is people. Whatever your organization you will only be able to comfortably handle incremental change if you don't take into account people issues. In our lives today, we all have to deal with too much change and for many of us the thought of willingly bringing on more change fills us with dread. So in order to be able to manage Step or Big Bang changes we need to invest in people. This investment in people is not merely providing them with communication and training in new methods approaches and processes – although more effort in this area would certainly make it somewhat easier for people to deal with change in work.

Instead it is more a case of working to develop people's receptiveness to change in all aspects of their lives. Employers who made more effort to focus on "training for life" and helped their staff learn the skills to deal with change in their everyday lives, would find those same staff far more willing to cooperate with change in their own organizations. In fact I would go as far as to suggest that staff trained to understand and deal with change would be far more likely to become proactive in changing aspects of their work in order to aid productivity.

However, as we have seen above it is not just your staff you need to think of when dealing with the people issues; you also have to think about your market too. Whatever field of business you operate in the fact is that your end market will be made up of people. In assessing how much change your market can deal with you will need to think about the people that make up your market and how willing they might be to adapt. There is no point in making a "Big Bang" change cantered around technology if your target market is made up of older people, as for the most part they are more than a little wary of all things technological. Witness the fact that until recently, most VCRs were being programmed by children for their parents!

So the real key in managing pace is to ensure that you, as opposed to your competitors, understand how receptive to change your people and markets are. Indeed, proactive companies will be those that actively seek to help those people and thus truly embed the change culture in their companies and markets. For that is what it is really about, changing the culture of a company or market to ensure that it is receptive to change. The more receptive it is then the faster and bigger the changes you can make.

Companies that are able to embed such culture will surely be the big winners in the months and years ahead.

Note: This article first appeared in 2004 on Mark McGregor's series of articles on

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