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The Case Against Baby Steps

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I recall being in a business strategy session with a client –  let’s call her Donna (Donna Summer is crooning in the background on the Lounge Channel, hence the choice ).

Donna was newly promoted into a leadership role with significant impact.  She had some great ideas she wanted to implement, with passion and energy to match.  She was raring to go and could hardly live through the transition period.

Yet, when talking about her vision for the near term future, her enthusiasm went from a Ferrari on a ultra-caffeinated speed cocktail, to a crawling, sedate turtle on Valium.

In fact, whenever Donna started speaking of the implementation of her ideas, her huge grin would dissipate into a tight-lipped pretend smile,
her speech would become peppered with things like “baby steps”, “it will be hard” and “it’s a lot to change in this organization”.

“But Donna,” I said, “What if this is the year of massive, successful change for your team? Imagine, you could be looking back a few years down the line, and saying, remember 2012? Yeah, that was the year it all changed on a dime.”

Donna looked at me as though I was out of my mind.

I wasn’t out my mind, I was just out of my “business as usual” mind.

The assumption is that change is hard.  The party line is that rolling out small, incremental changes is the only way to achieve the new, big, radically different vision – it’s just that it will take five years. Or ten.

Or may be even longer, because by the time we’re in year 3, there’s a new vision.  Or a new Donna.

Why should change be hard?

Isn’t the greatest built-in skill that we all have as humans our ability to adapt?  And adapt we do, especially in two scenarios:

When we have no choice:  if you move from the US to the UK, you will adapt very quickly to driving on the other side of road.  There’s no drawn out small, incremental change to how you drive.  One day you’re driving on the right, and the next, you’re driving on the left.  You adapt.

When adapting is the only way to get what we want: how do you communicate with someone who doesn’t speak your language? You learn reasonably quickly that shouting the same words louder doesn’t suddenly increase the shop keeper’s comprehension.  So you adapt and quickly learn how to say “how much” and “yes” and “no”.

Somehow though, in an organization, we don’t expect anyone to adapt quickly.  We anticipate a long, painful and drawn out process before an existing team adopts the new behaviours and processes that lead to the new desired outcomes.

We expect baby steps.

But what if Donna approached her new ideas and their implementation like driving on the other side of the road? Could the switch be done from one day to the next?

In the IT world, we do that all the time.  We turn off a legacy system at midnight, and replace it with a new system.  The next morning, everyone has to use the new system, and usually, around 1-2 weeks in, they can’t imagine having used anything else.

And just like that, the change is done.

What’s the difference between Donna’s new ideas and the new IT system?  Why can’t a new idea be “turned on”, and the old way of doing things, old way of behaving be “turned off” at midnight?

Even in our own lives, we expect change to take a long time.  I concede that seeing the results of change can take time.  For example, going from being a messy hoarder to a neat minimalist could take weeks or even months.

But making the change in our head and in our behaviour takes an instant:

  • Turn off the “messy” program, turn on “minimalist” program. (habit switch)
  • Stop saying “I’m rubbish at design” and start saying “I study design” (belief switch)
  • Replace “I’m unfit” with “I’m a runner”  (identity switch)

It starts with changing the program that runs in our heads, and that literally is a switch completely in our control.

In Donna’s case, I joked that she could just fire everyone and hire a whole bunch of new people who would simply take the new processes at face value and get on with it.

Donna laughed, and said, “Or I could just zap their brains and wipe out their memory …”.

As it turned out, Donna was head hunted away a short while later by a company who liked big, bold, change and left baby steps to toddlers.

My question to you is which big sweeping change are  you hiding behind the whole “baby steps” thing?

Are you tinkering with the colours of your logo, doing a couple of half-hearted pushups, and taking just one sugar instead of two in your coffee?

Are you wasting time on tweaks when you could be hitting the big switch in your head that unleashes your very own Ferrari?

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