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Change Proofing

November 21, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1995 I co-authored a paper [1] about “Change Proofing” – the ability of a commercial organization to manage change stimulated by largely unanticipated, hard-to-predict events and shocks. Examples up to that time included trauma due to third world debt in the 1970s, the energy industry in the 1980s, and commercial real estate and corporate buy-outs in the 1990s.

History shows that the consequences of failing to recognize and interpret harbingers of change can be devastating. It is said that the ancient Peruvian Indians were unable to “see” the sails of the invading Spanish fleet, and dismissed them as mirages. More recent historical (hysterical?) examples of myopia include US automobile manufacturers who were blinkered to Pacific-Rim competitors, and even IBM, which was long unprepared for opportunities presented by the explosive growth of personal computing.

Clearly-identified business trends, such as globalization, technology, demographics and new social orders, had often been cited up to 1995 as drivers of change. However, little attention had been given to management of change stimulated by largely unanticipated, hard-to-predict events and shocks, such as rapid oil price changes or the sudden collapse of centrally-planned economies. Few models of such change, or techniques to plan or cope with it had been presented in the literature in 1995 or since for that matter, although even in 1993 according to such an authority as Ed Schein [2]: “…the problem is not management of change but the management of surprise”.

Change Proofing was not intended as a means to resist or avoid change, but rather a process for becoming more flexible and responsive in order to cope with it. The Change Proofing paper proposed that environmental shocks and surprises could best be managed by increasing the ability of the organization itself to anticipate, recognize and respond to them – surprise surprise – before hand! The paper set out theoretical reasoning, but more importantly it detailed a straightforward practical Change Audit that would help organizations of all types and sizes frame and address critical factors for Change Proofing; form more realistic and objective views of radical environmental change; and develop better means of coping with surprise. The paper also recommended that the Change Audit should cover organizational learning processes and their impact on strategic focus, motivation and core capabilities.

So what can one say about current events? Too bad so many of today’s organizations haven’t read the paper or didn’t heed its message?! Well, it’s not too late to plan for next time – and there will be a next time – so I invite you to have a look at the paper now …

[1] Drew, S.A.W. & Smith, P., The Learning Organization: Change Proofing and Strategy, The Learning Organization, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1995

[2] Schein, E.H., How can organizations learn faster? The challenge of the green room, Sloan Management Review, Winter, 1992; pp. 85 – 92

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