Avoiding Repetitive Change Syndrome

Most management advice today — whether it’s from books or articles, prescribed in courses or by consultants — says that change is good and more change is better. Advice on how to change varies quite a bit, but it has three features in common: “Creative destruction” is its motto. “Change or perish” is its justification. And “No pain, no change” is its rationale for overcoming a purportedly innate human resistance to change. The overarching goal is to invent a spanking new future ahead of one’s competitors.

Divorcing to remarry, gutting the house to rehab it, downsizing the work-force in order to rehire and ripping apart the organization in order to restructure — these all exemplify the common approach to change these days. And it’s necessary — sometimes. The problem is that this highly destabilizing and painful change-management process has been overprescribed.

Examples of a lemming-like reliance on excessive change are easy to highlight. Consider the reengineering fad of the early to mid-1990s. Then a few years later, new-economy mania led change-pushers to herald Enron Corp. and other “revolutionaries” as companies to emulate. At the far edge of absurdity, the constant emphasis on radical change made a bestseller of Who Moved My Cheese? in which the most successful character learns to be ready, if not eager, to adapt to any and all changes in his food supply.

It would be wonderful if each disruptive episode of creative destruction had such a cheesy fairy-tale ending. But for many companies, repeated change efforts over the past 20 years have been too much about destruction and not enough about creation. What fairy tales do not mention is that many organizations make big revolutionary changes and perish, or worse, change and therefore perish.1

This is not to make the overblown point that all creative destruction is bad. There are, after all, the IBM’s of the world that revolutionize themselves very successfully. But for most companies, excessive levels of change-related pain can render change slower, more expensive and much more likely to fail entirely. In other words, “more pain, less change.” Employees who have to live through continuous rounds of change suffer the most, and the effect on the organization as a whole is likely to be corrosive. To guard against this damaging outcome, executives should continually monitor their organizations for symptoms of repetitive change syndrome: initiative overload, change-related chaos, employee cynicism and burnout.

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References

1. See, for instance, W.P. Barnett and J. Freeman, “Too Much of a Good Thing? Product Proliferation and Organizational Failure,” Organizational Science 12, no. 5 (2001): 539–558.

2. Note that sometimes an organization is redlining — indicating that it should slow down — but the industry, in effect, won’t let it stop revving the engine. When competitive pressures force rapid change, the organization may have no choice but to hold on for the ride, enduring the pain that comes along with it.