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The Death Spiral of Change

Updated: Nov 10, 2023

I've always been a big fan of the Chinese philosophical concept of yīn 陰 and yáng 陽 - particularly as this applies to a theory of change; opposite forces which are interconnected. Whilst most know this as the dark side and the light ☯ a more linguistically accurate construct is of growth and consolidation, as seen in the cycles of the seasons and in all organic life.

The Cult of Change

It seems to me there is almost a 'Cult of Change' in modern, western business thinking. Change is continuous, inevitable, and always/only a good thing. And cycles of change are getting ever faster (apparently). Also inevitable. Also good. If you have worked in a business on it's third Transformation Programme in five years, or experienced a major reorganisation of your department once every 18 months or so, you will perhaps know what I mean!

One can trace this line of thought right back to Classical Philosophy and the "Logos" of Heraclitus; oft summarised as "the only constant is change". And in the modern day, books like "Who Moved My Cheese?" with its hideous conclusion that we should all keep a pair of trainers nearby; to run quickly through a maze from one life disruption to the next.

Disney's Fireplace

To summarise the antithesis, I use a metaphor of the ubiquitous Disney film fireplace: A happy family gathered together (perhaps at Christmas) on a comfy rug in front of a roaring fire. A dog or cat or both at their feet. Isn't this, after all, what we all want? Sustained comfort, companionship, and peace? Not endless disruption and maze-running!

A 'Change Agent' might dismiss this as "the status quo". But can you see the irony? Isn't the ostensible purpose of all change activity to fix something that is perceived as broken? Improve a process? Reduce a cost? Disrupt? Transform? But transform to what? One presumes a "new normal" where things were better than they were before! And where one can sustain that new level of performance. So, new normal is really just another way of saying new status quo. A new and better fireplace.

What really happens

My empirical observation (from many years of change delivery) takes me to a very different place than either of these two extremes. In my first book (published in 2005), I combined theories from the fields of economics and psychology to describe what one most often sees on major change projects; a J-Curve where performance falls initially, even when change is well-planned and executed. After all, you are introducing instability into a system that (albeit sub-optimally) operated on comfortable and well-established habits. People take time to learn and adapt!

The job of the Change Agent is to minimise that period of disruption; through well-planned training, communications, and reward mechanisms ahead of implementation, but even more importantly to reinforce adoption, and manage stakeholder expectations through the post-implementation transition state - so they don't expect unreasonable and immediate results (the red line), but rather sustain their support through the inevitable dip.

The Death Spiral

A very real risk with the 'change for change's sake' brigade is that a new and fundamental change is introduced into that same system before one has exited the j-curve and attained the new normal, higher-performance state. The starting point for the project 2 j-curve is then from a lower performance level than before project 1.

I call this the 'death spiral of continuous change'. A sort of post-apocalyptic landscape, where the laundromat is still standing but no-one can remember how to operate it anymore. At an extreme, of course, this leads to total business or system failure. Something I would contend is becoming more and more common - and is a direct consequence of 'change as a religion' rather than 'change as a profession':

So why Yīn and Yáng?

In nature, one observes a cycle of growth and consolidation, linked to seasons, eras, and epochs. A tree brings forth blossoms in spring and leaves in summer, but sheds both into the hibernation of winter. The important point is that both growth and consolidation are essential to wellbeing. As we are learning, through climate change, plants and animals are not dealing well with lengthening growth phases and shortened rest periods. Stressing them in this way is accelerating habitat destruction and species extinction.

My argument is that periods of consolidation need protecting in a business. People, processes, and technologies all need time to rest and recuperate before the next great leap forward. And if we, as leaders, build that into our change lexicon then we can avoid destructive downward spirals and nurture the opposite; ever greater levels of performance and human attainment.

Final Thoughts

Poor old Heraclitus. His life's work reduced to a single sound-bite. But if you actually take the time to read his work properly, he was simply observing that same pattern in nature as the Taoists (and drawing the same conclusions). As he put it, "you cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you". And even the rocks are not the same; worn away slowly over eras by the action of the waters.

Yes, change is a constant. But constant change for its own sake, without pause, is not the lesson to take from nature. Endless summer kills the flower.

© David Viney 2023. Licensed for re-use with attribution under CC BY 4.0

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The <a href="">The Death Spiral of Change</a>, by <a href="">David Viney</a>, licensed under <a href="">CC BY 4.0</a>

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