Change Management: If You Always Do What You Always Did…

…Then You’ll Always Get What You Always Got

I’m not advocating change for change’s sake. If you’re happy with how things are going, keep doing the same thing. One business I worked for had great results and was obsessed by not changing the magic formula. But they couldn’t quite work out which the key elements of the magic formula were, so were understandably paranoid about changing anything, for fear of accidentally killing the Golden Goose. Don’t touch that….! It might be the important bit. Change is risky but if you always do what you always did then you’ll always get what you always got!

Quote infographic in black and white lettering
It’s an age-old phrase, but what does it actually mean?

Is Change Always a Good Thing?

Conversely, a well-known airline embarked on a series of cost-cutting measures some years ago. None of the cuts in and of themselves were meaningful, but it was the totality of the changes that annoyed passengers who noticed the general decline in quality.

For me, the last straw was the addition of an extra row of seats without reconfiguring the overhead bins, resulting in the loss of the fresh air vent in row 7, which infuriated me on a hot afternoon flying from Madrid. For other people, it will have been something else, but the airline realised that they had made too much unnecessary change and had to start to figure out which bits to change back to get back to an acceptable level.

Similarly, there is the story of the luxury German car manufacturer: in the 1970s, a bright spark worked out how much money could be saved by not painting the area behind the ashtray. When owners, who typically bought a new model every few years, emptied the ashtray, they noticed that the area was no longer painted, where it had been on the old model. Customers started to wonder where else they were saving money. Brand perception fell, just for a trivial saving in paint.

A Good Example of Change

Take Staedtler, the venerable German pencil manufacturer founded in 1835. They’re very good at making wooden pencils. They haven’t tried to force unnecessary change. They’re privately-owned and clearly the very best in the business at making quality wooden pencils. They’ll still be doing so in 50 years. If they are happy with what they get, they don’t (and shouldn’t) want to change the inputs for risk of messing with a successful enterprise. Why be the generation in a family business that breaks the inheritance for no good reason?

But others should absolutely have embraced change, because external forces were at play, driving dramatic change in the industry. Even if businesses like Blockbuster and Kodak were happy with their outcomes in the past, the development of streaming services, digital cameras, and smartphones meant that they needed to adapt or die – and their failure to act in time led to their bankruptcy.

If you carry out a process with the same inputs, you’ll probably keep getting the same result each time. But if you are happy with the result, it’s a winning formula. If there is no pressing need to improve it and nothing external seems to be a threat, then why take the risk of making things worse?

But if you’re dissatisfied with the results you’re getting, you have to change something. This is where the simple and unanswerable truth of If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got resonates. It is true in every case and is equally true in business as it is in life in general.

Fitness is a Classic Example

If you keep wondering why you can’t seem to squeeze into those old jeans, while knowing you’re interacting with the biscuit barrel more than your trainers, then you can’t be surprised that things aren’t changing. Similarly, if always eat more than you know you should and exercise less than you should, then you’ll always continue to get the result you don’t want. If you make a change to the inputs – eat less, exercise more – then it stands to reason that you’ll get different outcomes. Worth a try, right?

If you get consistently disappointing results in any field and you follow a consistent process that leads to  this consistent disappointment, it doesn’t take Einstein to work out that you need to change the inputs to achieve a better outcome.

You Don’t Have to Be Einstein…

As it happens, though, Einstein did have opinions on this matter:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Alfred Einstein*

 * This quotation is attributed to Einstein, although he probably didn’t ever say it. People keep assuming he said it and attribute it to him, so perpetuating it. If whoever did say it first wanted to change the popular attribution, they should have changed something because without doing so they’ll always get what they always got: their bon motbeing attributed to someone else. You see where I’m going with this, right? 

Einstein quote about insanity
Einstein spoke a similar quote about insanity

Changing Customer Service

Let’s take a customer service team, who year after year get slightly worse results than competitors. They may talk a good game and have the best intentions, but they don’t fundamentally change anything. It’s the same old team doing things the same old way. Perhaps they tell themselves that this is the Company Way. That’s how head office tell us to do it. That’s how we’ve always done things.

If the same people have done the same things in the same way, then they’ll go on getting the same results. If it’s not working, change something. Anything, if necessary. But usually, you can work out the root cause, or at least identify a few likely options. These may be unpalatable, but there’s no alternative. Perhaps you need to look outside and see why others are getting different outcomes and figure out what they are doing differently. Those differences may seem difficult to change in your organisation. Change is not always easy.

You may need to bring in new people, or invest in technology. You may need to fundamentally change the whole process by which you operate. That may be awkward, but it’s unavoidable. So recognise it, call it out, face into the necessary change and you give yourself half a chance of making the result better. If you don’t, you’re doomed to get the same results. Nothing lucky is going to just happen.

Identifying When to Implement Change

In some situations, you won’t be able to identify easily what it is that needs changing, despite knowing that something has to change. If you’ve researched competitors, looked at other industries, talked to customers, brainstormed with the team, and still not figured it out, then you’ll have to guess. This won’t be comfortable for many people and will be downright painful for some. In fact, you’ve got to be a bit mad to change things for the sake of it. However, if you know that changing nothing will not change the outcome, then it’s madness not to change something, so you might as well experiment. Literally, any change is worth a shot.

Definition of change highlighted
Changing the input will change the output into what you want

You’ll need to choose your attitude, though. If you and/or those around you are frightened of change, then confirmation bias will kick in and find all the reasons why whatever you have changed is a bad idea and needs to be reversed quickly. Decide that experimentation is going to help you get better results and might even be fun and you’ll find it a liberating experience and you’ll soon figure out the solution.

What’s the worst that can happen? That’s a subject for another day…!

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