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The Three Undeniable Rules of Change

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June 01, 2018
Change | Management
Michael Schubach - michaelschubach@me.com

Change is vital but it definitely is not always easy. Michael Schubach offers suggestions on how you can ease your way into change by changing the way that change changes you. 

Change is, according to conventional wisdom, our only constant. As if to prove the point, even change changes; the rapidly accelerating pace of modern technological evolution continues to astound. Those of us with at least a half-century under (or more likely, hanging over) our belts grew up in a vastly different, largely forgotten, and virtually unrecognizable world. Change not only continually reinvents the world but also its inhabitants – that belt thing is real. As individuals, we plod our way through a bell curve of birth, growth, decline and final face-plant.  We are treadmill runners trying to keep pace with the new-fangled, until it’s our dust that turns to dust. “Change” joins “death” and “taxes” to form a triumvirate of unavoidability. But the single most astounding thing about change is this: with so much of it everywhere, you’d think we’d be better at it. 
I am obsessed with the study of change, its impact and impediments, and would like to share some of the constants and constraints that are associated with the act of being or becoming different. Here are three important things to remember about change.
Rule 1: Change Begets More Change
From the tool and technology perspective, a new invention that results in mass adoption spurs the development of additional products that have subsidiary impact.  Let’s use the ubiquitous smartphone to illustrate the point. Invent the smartphone and all the gizmos inside it necessary to make it function, and then watch the stampede of “secondary products.”  Sooner than you can imagine, you have goods and services that are not intrinsic to the product itself, but that compliment it by personalizing it, helping to distribute it, making it more efficient – or to compete with it. You see industries rise that generate freelance apps, smartphone cases, improved wireless carrier services, additional ways to purchase and/or deliver the product, and finally, to generate its own successor product as the original is replaced by its next-gen offering. Secondary products may not be revolutionary but they broaden and deepen the impact of the change, just as a small snow slide can broaden into an avalanche.  
Rule 2: The Rate of Change Adoption is Constrained by the Cost of Change
Not surprising. There is a reason that we’re all not carrying the very latest smartphone or that every hotel with a PMS is not running the most current version of the software available. Some of our inability to change is circumstance, but a great deal of that condition is driven by simple economics: the money matters. Let’s pretend for a moment that the world could revolutionize the economics of product delivery by making bigger railroad transports – higher, wider and with a broader wheelbase. Now the cost of the revolution is not only the mega-transports themselves but also the entire transcontinental rail system, with likely impact to bridges, overpasses and easements.  Is a national miracle worth the cost?  
So the next thing we notice about change is that once there is popular adoption of a specific standard or status – in this case, the somewhat arbitrary dimensions of the original railway system – inertia and customary expectation take over. Changing becomes far more challenging than adopting new; it would be much easier to revolutionize rail transportation in a country that doesn’t have any infrastructure than to scrap an expensive but archaic system that is currently in use in a country that could profoundly benefit from an upgrade. At the end of the day, the best product doesn’t necessarily prevail; that honor typically falls to the most viable alternative that conveniently fits within existing frameworks, forcing less change on providers already set in their expensive ways. (One hospitality example is attribute-based inventory: a potentially good idea rendered effectively useless because the GDS systems still need conventional room types. Sic transit gloria mundi, as we used to say back when we were speaking Latin.)               
 And speaking of that emotional damage I mentioned, we arrive at rule three.
Rule 3: Change is Further Contrained by the Human Response to it
Not to masquerade as Captain Obvious, but a major part of our problem with change is our attitude toward it. Again, it’s a bell-curve thing. When it comes to having an opinion, humankind gets a universe of three basic options from which to choose. Two of those choices occupy the polar extremes – the flattened ends of the graph – where a respondent either solidly favors or completely opposes the proposition. The third option is the previously referenced bell in the bell-shaped curve: the territory of somewhere in between. That middle ground includes neutrality, indifference, lack of familiarity with the issue, conditions for acceptance or rejection, and everything else. As those of us familiar with a bell shape might suspect, the third option represents the majority of the opinion spectrum.
As I have noted in previous Hospitality Upgrade essays on modernization and change management, when it comes to the issue of technological change in the workplace, the spectrum of being for, against or on the fence sets up a rather neat bell curve: roughly one quarter favors making technological changes – they are acceptors, promoters and in edge cases, change junkies staving off the boredom of the status quo. Another quarter of the population opposes change – they are unconvinced, threatened or in edge cases, luddites who long for simpler, easier and fairer times. The 50 percent that occupies the middle ground generally chooses to wait and see; they must verify that the act of changing suits them.        
Looking at changing from the emotional side, we can see the conundrum: change may be normal and natural, but that does not make it easy, comfortable or appropriate to the moment. As my mother used to point out to my siblings and me, there are many perfectly normal and natural things that can and should take place, but that does not mean that we will be doing all of them at the dinner table. 
Taken at face value, change itself seems as though it should be highly desirable; and we human beings should naturally skew toward the positive end of the spectrum. Change – or at least voluntary change – generally speaks to advancement, which is what separates us from the ancients and the animals. Our lives are dramatically more informed, more plentiful, more productive and more enviable because we create, implement and change. 
Regardless, I watch many organizations delay change until there is simply no alternative but to reinvent their paradigm – they are out of time and suitable options. Business leaders often embrace change the way most of the rest of us embrace death: we know it’s coming but we’re passionately ignoring the inevitability of the process, even if things promise to improve afterwards. These operators avert their eyes and wait for an epiphany, an inspired and irrefutable glimpse of the correct answer so that no false steps are taken or bad choices made. This can be an extremely long wait.
Asking for more data to support decision-making is both smart and responsible … to a point. Beyond that point, it becomes a delaying tactic and a change barrier of its own. Change-wary decision makers wait for a game-changing factoid to materialize, or a more convenient day than today to decide and a less busy tomorrow to implement. The sad truth emerges: in a high-stakes professional environment, technical change is highly desirable as long as it’s happening to someone else. Adopting a new paradigm is a commitment, the success of which can have tremendous impact not only on the business but also on the decision-maker’s livelihood. Buying into a change of technology can feel like cliff diving: you have to commit to hurling yourself headlong into a murky and uncertain depth that you can’t possibly assess as you start over the edge.
To those who find themselves in daunting decision loops, I offer the following quick hints: 
• Change requires definition. 
Map out your major objectives, the items, processes and results that are most important to the project. Know how you will measure those results, and what the metric is that concretely defines success. With the abundance of impacts in large projects, it’s easy to forget what success looks or feels like, or if you’ve even attained it. There will be days when you will need to remind yourself and your management team where you were, where you’re going and why. 
• Change requires action. 
Start with a time box and set definite deadlines for decision-making. If the decision is dependent on other decisions or inputs, specify those before you begin. You should not begin deciding without knowing how and when you will finish.
• Allow multiple positive options for change. 
Take yourself out of the “all or nothing” frame of mind; there are ways to change the environment without committing to a single unchangeable path. Keep “Plan B” on the table and your mitigation strategy at hand.
• Change can be disruptive; manage the magnitude. 
To whatever extent possible, consume the elephant one bite at a time. If you subscribe to the Big Bang theory, then you believe that the last individual who actually did it correctly was God, and that was more than ten billion years ago.  
• Manage the emotional impact of change.  
You will expect employees and operators to accept the new paradigm; it’s only fair that they will expect you to do the same.  Flexibility by all during transition is a must – even the outside auditors have to accept that it isn’t going to be the way it used to be.
• Despite your best efforts, change is unpredictable. 
There will be unforeseen benefits and unanticipated challenges, breakthroughs and setbacks, good days and bad days. All things will not be equal at the end, and, by the way, there is no end. Don’t oversell a straight path to success but do address the challenges quickly, making sure that reactions are proportional and properly prioritized. Not every shortcoming or reversal is an emergency, and whatever your circumstance, that too shall pass.
• Trying to force change too quickly can have the opposite effect. 
Yes, budgets and schedules are business necessities but remember that the earlier you prepare your estimates, the more flawed they will be. Allow for contingency and correction – you’ll need it. Allow for flexibility because you’re going to need that as well. Holding fast to arbitrary and seemingly immutable deadlines can cost you time rather than demonstrate effective leadership. 
• Rewarding change is worth rewarding. Don’t forget to celebrate successes; remember how important esprit de corps is to the project’s outcome and acceptance.       
In the business community, where change is an existential imperative, incremental change is significantly better than no change. There is no straight line to success, and no such thing as error-free decisions or zero unexpected consequences. But take heart: there are ways to pilot potential solutions, mitigate risk, manage the unexpected and ease your way into new methodologies – in short, you can change the way that change changes you, and that’s a change worth making.      

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