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This chapter is from the book

High Change

Good managers fail when the rate of change disrupts their ability to cope by means of their usual management practices.

  • High speed is easy; high change is the real challenge.

High change, when fueled by speed and other external factors, is both hard to accomplish and dangerous. How challenging can be seen as analogous with a high-speed mountaineering gamble taken by an acquaintance of mine several years ago. Tired of the long walk off Denali after having spent three weeks on the mountain, this climber viewed the walk down the Kahiltna Glacier as boring and just wanted to get down. He decided on an exhilarating descent, climbed aboard the plastic sled he used to haul supplies up the mountain, and off he went. Unbelievably lucky, he made it. The Kahiltna is a crevasse-ridden glacier; it is not a place to travel un-roped. Even within roped parties, climbers often find crevasse falls a part of the Denali experience. Rocketing down the glacier on a sled is definitely a high-speed gamble.

Most management strategies are geared either to reduce the number of changes or to control changes. While these strategies are useful, it is more useful to embrace change than to try to control it. By embracing change, management may be able to develop an ability to absorb it. In increasing-returns markets, and especially in fast-paced markets, an organization that can absorb change, learn from it, and deliver in the face of it, has the advantage. Although “change” often has a negative connotation, in unstable environments we should view change as positive, as something providing both an opportunity to learn and an opportunity to get ahead of the competition.

Unfortunately, most change-management processes still reflect the predominance of imposed-order thinking. Traditional project management continuously seeks to control by planning a future project state and then by reducing variations in time, cost, quality, and feature set when they deviate from the plan. As a result of the fact that most managers wish to retain stability, change management practices are, for the most part, considered to be methods for handling exception conditions. But complex, turbulent environments are characterized by disequilibrium and low levels of predictability. Change is not an exception; it is the norm.

  • In extreme environments, equilibrium is the exception condition.

In thinking about change management, one needs to divide an environment into its naturally complex and potentially orderly segments. Potentially orderly parts of the environment are those that are some-what predictable, and therefore are amenable to optimizing change-control practices. Naturally complex parts of the environment are not amenable to deterministic practices; to manage them, one must utilize a strategy of change containment. In high-change environments, trying to react explicitly to every change consumes too much time. Containing change (covered in more depth in Chapter 11) is a limiting strategy, which enables team members to react to some changes without the guidance of explicit documentation or specific change-control procedures.

One example of a generally inappropriate change-control strategy is freezing of product specifications. This strategy effectively says, “We just don’t recognize new changes.” A freeze strategy blocks new input, refuses to recognize reality, and retreats into the comfort of order and control. The requirements specification process is nondeterministic—it addresses a naturally disorderly part of the environment. Requirements changes need to be contained, not controlled. A contain strategy might advocate that developers change the code and move on, whereas a control strategy would necessitate careful documentation updates to maintain requirements traceability. Of course, to get a product into the customers’ hands, every product development team must at some point finalize the code and ship. But just as in a high-speed Formula One race, the last one to ease off the throttle while careening into a corner usually comes out first—or crashes.

Requirements changes made necessary because of new customer requests or in anticipation of evolving customer needs, changing technology, or competitors’ actions are the most difficult changes to manage. For example, the very day in the Fall of 1995 that Microsoft launched Microsoft Network (MSN), it was rendered obsolete by the Internet explosion. External changes of that ilk cannot be predicted. Even if there were time to employ deterministic change-control practices, they would ultimately fail, for unpredictable problems don’t succumb to deterministic solutions. The best weapons for managing naturally disorderly changes are emergent solutions, generated by collaborative teams.

Change can impact hundreds of product components, requirements documents, test plans, user documents, product plans, ideas, sketches, doodles, decisions, and designs. Are all of these to be controlled? Of course the answer is no. Change management can run the gamut from establishing elaborate software change-management systems to ignoring the changes.

In complex environments, change needs to reflect normalcy and learning rather than exceptions and control. In order to illuminate this different mental model, the term “difference” management might be substituted for the term “change” management. There can be differences between predicted and actual, with each having an equal probability of being wrong. Whereas changes are usually considered things to be reduced or eliminated, differences just are.

If unbridled change leads to chaos and perfect predictability leads to stability and stagnation, then our search must be for a way to contain or bound change in order to remain in the transition zone at the edge of chaos. We must set boundaries—not predict results—and let self-organization respond.

Thus, change management—traditionally defined as “exception processing”—goes away. Change management becomes an integral part of adaptive management, particularly the collaboration portion. The practices and tools needed for effective collaboration are in fact those needed for managing continuous change! In both cases, the trick is to manage the difference between information we already have and newly received information. Balancing at the edge requires balancing between change control and change containment. Whereas change control is formal and rigorous, change containment must be less formal and more flexible.

Altering one’s approach to change, whether by acquiescing to periodic plan alterations or by accepting change as the normal state, is necessary if one is to succeed in high-change environments. It is an essential component in creating an adaptive culture.

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