The Problem With Declaring Success Too Early

19 Jul

The most common complaint I’ve heard people make about the books of sci-fi author, Philip K Dick, is that the books don’t end, they simply drift off. I’ve noticed the same thing when reading Dick’s work, but the slow drifting away is one of the things I liked most about his books. The reason is that the endings mirror real life very closely.

In many of Dick’s books a relatively normal person is swept up in extraordinary events, only to drift back to a life which the protagonist didn’t particularly enjoy or troubled them. In my mind, these endings were realistic, as many of us hope that big changes, decisions and restructures will transform ourselves, lives, teams or organisations only to see everything slowly drift back to the status quo. And this is the problem when trying to judge whether change has been a success, at what moment, if any, do you chose to declare there has been a successful transformation?

I was thinking this whilst reading some successful organizational change management case studies. The results had been frozen at a particular moment, where it was clearly possible to declare some form of success. However, the problem with change and life is that there is always a sequel, always a next day which unfreezes the frozen moment of success. This was a popular criticism of Peters and Watermans book, In Search of Excellence (1982). Fast forward a few years, and the companies researched for the book were no longer performing excellently.

This point does not mean that any change really works. Nor does it mean that if you wait long enough all change ends in failure. These are just straw man arguments. What it does mean is that some decisions do not, and should not, end with a moment, they are a continuous cycle of sequels which require constant management. In other words, we cannot just freeze a moment, declare success, and then take our eyes off the ball. If we do, the change might end like a Philip K Dick novel, a sleep-walk back to the status quo.

Reading

Peters, T. Waterman, R.H. In Search of Excellence-Lessons from America’s Best Run Companies. Collins Business Essentials.

 

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