All this talk of change is annoying me

In 1963, Porsche launched the 911 at the Frankfurt motor show. The 2.0 litre engine produced 130 BHP. The latest version produces 380 BHP. What I think is more impressive is the humble Ford Fiesta. The little 1.0 engine in its highest specification produces a staggering 197 BHP. That’s 50% more power than the original Porsche in an engine half the size. What was once great in 1963 is mediocre by today’s standards. 

Don’t think such improvement is limited to manufacturing. Take something as simple as running and the same improvement in performance can be seen. In 1908 the winning time for the marathon in the London Olympics was 2:55:18. Just over a hundred years later, the winning time at the London Olympics was 2:08:01, a 27% improvement in performance. But by today’s standards, even this time is mediocre with Elid Kipchoge’s remarkable marathon time of 1:59:40. What is more remarkable is that in the London marathon of 2012, 786 runners went faster than the winning time in the 1908 Olympics. What was once considered an elite performance is now the standard of a good club runner. Everywhere you look what was once great is by today’s standards mediocre. The supermarket revolution started by Clarence Saunders in 1916 with his Piggly Wiggly brand was a radical innovation, but today’s shoppers would be frustrated by having to wait for a checkout person to process their goods when compared to the convenience of self scan that we have today. And sure enough, whatever we define as today’s great will be tomorrow’s mediocre. 

Change is like breathing – it happens all the time. If we stop breathing, we die. If we cease changing we don’t stand still, we go backwards, we get left behind. I think one of the problems with large scale change projects is that we call them change projects. It has people thinking that this change is somehow unusual or unique rather than business as usual. It leads some people to argue that we should keep things as they were and that all this change is somehow bad. This is predicated on a nonsense that there was such a time when things were stable and did not change. This is to take a very narrow slice of time and define it as ‘always’ a notion that stands little scrutiny. Take any current product or service and track it back and you will find a series of changes.

Given all this, why do so many people argue that people do not like change? Quite patently they do, otherwise there would be no market for the latest version of anything. Neither would people participate in the great life changing events such as marriage or having children. The issue is not the change, but the ambiguity and the fear of not being in control or the lack of clarity about the consequences of the change. It makes good sense to be cautious about what you don’t understand or perceive as threatening. I was once cycling off-road through a high mountain pass in the United States  when I saw in front of me what looked like a snake, but equally could just be a stick. Had I rushed over to explore and it was indeed a snake I could easily have been bitten and possibly died. By being cautious and approaching more carefully I was able to assess the threat whilst minimising the risk. In just the same way, when faced with change, about which there is uncertainty, people understandably proceed with caution. We need to stop confusing caution with a dislike of change and see it for what it is, a sensible approach in the absence of sufficient information. One solution is to help make the change accessible by making it more familiar. Familiarity is highly correlated with liking. Classic examples include calling the first motor cars “horseless carriages” or cash machines “Autotellers”. These labels helped people understand the new technology and so help make it more accessible.

Most change does not appear out of thin air. It is not quite the surprise we think. The precedents already exist. Everything about the iPhone existed before the iPhone was launched. Touch screens, Mp3 players, cameras, personal digital assistants, cellular technology. What Steve Jobs did was to pull all this together into one device. My request is that we stop talking about ‘change’. We just don’t need the term. Call things what they are, the latest version, a revised system or an improved process. We need to help people see that to use the term change is akin to checking in with everyone at the start of the meeting to see if they are breathing – it’s silly.

Dominic Irvine © 2019 All rights asserted

First published in BDaily Newson 28 November 2019