Contradictions in change

on Dec 17, 2013 in Blog


Just do it?

Get it right?

Be radical?

Plan strategically?


Over the past couple of days I’ve read four posts about innovation and change. The trouble is that, while each makes sense by itself, they offer conflicting advice to change leaders. This thought piece gets to the heart of those contradictions and suggests that we’re being offered a false choice between ‘more planned’ and ‘more exploratory’ approaches. Instead, it proposes that we plan to learn from change as we explore what our plans mean in practice.

Just do it

Rosabeth Moss Kanter gives us ‘Four Reasons Any Action Is Better than None’. Forget perfection, she says in her Harvard Business Review blog post. ‘Just do it. So what if you’re wrong? You can always try again. In an uncertain world of rapid change, business strategy includes room for improvisation’.

Get it right

Not so, says Andrew Hill in the FT. ‘Mending a dud product’ he tells us, ‘is no substitute for getting it right first time’. While tiny, incremental, post-live improvements might be OK for app developers, it’s not the same for car manufacturers and others, ‘where customers expect durable, fully functioning products that do not fail fast’.

Be radical

Andrew Corner, commenting on sustainability in the Guardian, agrees with his namesake. He suggests that ‘’Every little helps’ is a dangerous mantra for climate change’ because nudging and tweaking behaviours will never address more fundamental, systemic issues. Radical responses are required, he tells us.

Plan strategically

Returning to HBR, Grant McCracken bemoans ‘All hail the agile! All hail the nimble!’ and highlights the downside of strategic agility i.e. a lack of strategic planning. He describes how executives repeatedly failed to pick up on a key long-term trend because they were so preoccupied with just-in-time responsiveness.

It seems to me that what we are being offered here is a two-dimensional choice. We’re being invited to choose between more exploratory and more planned approaches to innovation and change. The more exploratory approaches are portrayed as action-led, experimental, improvisational, agile, nimble, just-in-time and responsive. In contrast, the more planned approaches are painted as radical, strategic, forward-looking, focused on quality and concerned with getting it right first time.

But this apparent choice is a false choice. In the ‘doing’ of innovation and change (as opposed to writing about it), more exploratory and more planned aspects of change are entangled. Trying to choose between them would be a bit like trying to unscramble eggs:

  • ‘Just doing it’ entails choosing what to do and noticing the responses, so you can choose your next move. Pace doesn’t mean that behaviour is unplanned.
  • Getting things right first time often involves intensive experimentation and testing. Success is unlikely without learning from failure.
  • Radical solutions to systemic issues are always exploratory in practice and will involve tweaking and nudging. If they were already well-tried and tested, they wouldn’t be radical.
  • In the doing, strategic plans become experiments in live change. While you might be able to plan some of your moves, you cannot plan ahead for how everybody will respond.

So, if we cannot choose between planned and exploratory approaches; what can we do? Our work on dynamic patterning suggests that we need to plan to learn from change as we explore what our plans mean in practice. By planning in processes to explore dynamic patterns of change, change leaders can make more informed responses in live change.