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Blinded by the Light

Clearly, if you do not see a truck racing toward you, you are unlikely to jump out of the way. Likewise, if you do not realize that you are standing on a treasure of gold, you are unlikely to bend down and pick it up. It is no brilliant observation to say that if people fail to see the need for change (whether threat or opportunity driving it), they will not change.

Everybody knows this. This is why in virtually any book on change there is a section on "creating the need for change." Yes, a felt need for change is required. However, the fact that people fail to see the need or fail to be convinced of the need is compelling evidence that "creating the need for change" is easier said than done. Part of the reason for this is that, by jumping straight to "establish a sense of urgency," we skip over one of the most important questions that provides the necessary insight to help us actually create the need for change.

The question is, Why don't people see the truck or the treasure? Why don't they see the need for change? In almost every case, the need is not invisible. If it were invisible, we could hardly blame ourselves or someone else for not seeing the need. But in most cases, the need for change is visible; it is right there in front of us.

For a moment, let's return to the Motorola example. (By the way, we do not mean to pick on Motorola. It has lots of company with other firms that have missed a significant threat or opportunity, such as AT&T, Black & Decker, Caterpillar, IBM, Kmart, Lucent, Merrill Lynch, and Xerox.) Still, although Motorola is not the only firm to miss an important threat or opportunity, the threats and opportunities that Motorola faced were hardly invisible. Yet Motorola still did not see, recognize, or acknowledge them until it was absolutely incontrovertible. Instead, Motorola first denied the threat, then worked harder at what it knew how to do well, as illustrated in Exhibit 2-1

EXHIBIT 2-1EXHIBIT 2-1 Strategic change matrix: Failure to see.

So why do we deny? When we see evidence that a strategy, structure, technology, or product was right in the past but now is wrong, why do we ignore and deny the evidence? To understand the first gravitational force that keeps us from changing, we must come to grips with good answers to these questions.

We deny because we are blinded—blinded by the light of what we already see. To understand what this means, it is important to keep in mind that changes are almost always required in the context of a history, and it is usually a history of success. That history of success creates mental maps in us—maps just as real as those guiding us in the physical world. They tell us where to go and how to get there. For example, consider the map in Exhibit 2-2.

EXHIBIT 2-2EXHIBIT 2-2 Island of California map.

This is a map of the island of California. When they first see it, many people think it is a futuristic map of California after a huge earthquake—what Californians refer to as the "big one to come." The map is actually quite an old one.

For centuries, Europeans were captivated by legends of distant islands with unimaginable wealth. In 1541, Hernan Cortes and a group of adventurers set sail from Spain to discover such an island. Cortes sailed across the Atlantic, portaged through Mexico, then set sail again up the Strait of California, more commonly known today as the Gulf of Baja. Eventually, his provisions ran low, his crew grew nervous, and he was forced to turn back. To understand this better, it may be helpful to remember that the Gulf of Baja is more nearly 1,000 miles long, or over 1,600 kilometers.

For Cortes, failure was unacceptable, so with a little wishful thinking, he created a success. To the east and west, land was in view; to the north and south, water. Cortes reached a conclusion that seemed perfectly logical: He was in search of an island, and an island he had found—La Isla de California. Cortes returned to Spain and reported to the king and queen exactly what they wanted to hear (and what he wanted to believe): California is an island.

Shortly after Cortes's discovery, another expedition was sent to confirm his claim. This one traveled far up along the Pacific coast, past present-day San Francisco. This overly ambitious expedition also ran low on supplies, and by the time they reached the Mendocino River on northern California's coast, the crew was stricken with scurvy. With no inclination to dispute Cortes and no absolute evidence that he was wrong, they concluded that the river was really a strait separating the northern part of the island of California from the rest of the continent.

This cartographic myth persisted throughout Europe for over two centuries. Just imagine if you had this map and landed in what is present-day eastern Texas along the Gulf of Mexico. Your objective was to travel overland and reach the island of California. What would you need to take with you? Boats, of course. You would have to haul boats across what are present-day Texas, New Mexico, and the deserts of Arizona, only to discover that California was not an island. In fact, several expeditions provided clear proof that California was not an island, but it was not until 1745 (200 years after the original map of the island of California was created) that a royal proclamation from Spain finally declared "California is not an island."

Why did it take so long for this map to change? Once the belief that California was an island had been established, reports from later explorers were filtered to fit the existing map; anything contradictory was labeled as false or impossible. From all the king knew, the map worked quite well. Why should he throw it away? Similarly, for Motorola, analog phones had worked quite well for a long time. Why should it throw the map away?

Lest we create the impression that only U.S. firms are blinded by the light, let's take a look at one of Nokia's neighbors—IKEA. IKEA is not only one of the largest firms in Sweden, but one of the largest retail furniture companies in the world today.

The mission of IKEA is to create a better everyday life for as many people as possible by making beautiful, functional items for consumers' homes at the lowest possible price. It launched its first catalog in Sweden in 1951. Since then, it has expanded into 22 countries across Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia. In 2000, it had sales of nearly $9 billion. In sync with its philosophy and mission, its competitive strategy is based on a value proposition of moderate- to good-quality Scandinavian design furniture at incredibly low prices. This strategy works well around the world for most of the products that IKEA offers, such as curtains or dinnerware. However, successful IKEA strategic map failed miserably for some items, specifically beds and sheets, when it expanded into the United States.

When IKEA began its U.S. operations, it shipped low-priced, moderate-quality, metric-sized beds and bedding to all of its U.S. stores. It advertised how wonderful the beds were—especially at a full two meters in length! IKEA expected the same great success in the U.S. that it had enjoyed in Europe. Unfortunately, sales did not go well at first. What was IKEA's response? It increased its advertising. Maybe people didn't know what great metric-sized beds IKEA had to offer. More advertising would surely bring customers into the stores and send merchandise flying off the showroom floor.

How did beds and bedding sell in the United States after that? They quickly became category failures, filling up entire warehouses. Local store and regional managers tried to communicate to corporate headquarters in Sweden that metric-sized beds and bedding would not sell in the United States—despite the fact that they were priced lower than the king, queen, full, and twin-sized bedding found in competitors' furniture stores.

How did IKEA's senior managers, who were seven time zones away at corporate headquarters, respond to this local dilemma? "Be more creative. Pull the customers into your store. Any good retailer can sell metric-sized bedding; that's the solution to your inventory problems." Anders Dahlvig, CEO of IKEA, is quoted as saying, "Whether we are in China, Russia, Manhattan, or London, people buy the same things. We don't adapt to local markets."2 So, despite local and regional U.S. managers' constant attempts to convince headquarters otherwise, their bosses in Sweden clung to their strategic map for over two years. Finally, the bursting warehouses won, metric-sized beds and bedding were reluctantly discontinued in the U.S. market, and management declared that metric was not king; king was king; queen was king; twin was king in the U.S. market.

Why did IKEA persist in following its strategic map of metric as king? Because it had worked so well in the past, and IKEA was good at it. Company leaders could not see an alternative map because their vision was full of the successful and working map they already had.

This is a critical point. If people were blank slates, it would be much easier to put new maps in place when organizations attempt to shift strategic directions. But people are not blank slates. Consequently, one of the first keys to effective change is recognizing that people have existing mental maps, and they have them for only one reason—they have worked and they continue to work well! It is not that "an old dog can't learn new tricks." Rather it is that an old dog has a devil of a time unlearning old tricks.

Until we recognize that people's vision for the need for change is blocked by existing mental maps that argue for past success and against future change, we will continue to fail in breaking through the first brain barrier of change. We must recognize that people have strong existing mental maps, and we must know what those maps are. Without this understanding, it is almost impossible to overcome people's failure to see.

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