Before Change, Stop and Think

I appreciate the wisdom of Jim Collins, author of the classic 2001 book on beneficial change in organizations, Good to Great, as well as many other books on business. At New Years, we are always thinking about change, and he has some very specific advice for us:

I want to give you a lobotomy about change. I want you to forget everything you’ve ever learned about what it takes to create great results. I want you to realize that nearly all operating prescriptions for creating large-scale corporate change are nothing but myths.

The Myth of the Change Program: This approach comes with the launch event, the tag line, and the cascading activities.

The Myth of the Burning Platform: This one says that change starts only when there’s a crisis that persuades “unmotivated” employees to accept the need for change.

The Myth of Stock Options: Stock options, high salaries, and bonuses are incentives that grease the wheels of change.

The Myth of Fear-Driven Change: The fear of being left behind, the fear of watching others win, the fear of presiding over monumental failure—all are drivers of change, we’re told.

The Myth of Acquisitions: You can buy your way to growth, so it figures that you can buy your way to greatness.

The Myth of Technology-Driven Change: The breakthrough that you’re looking for can be achieved by using technology to leapfrog the competition.

The Myth of Revolution: Big change has to be wrenching, extreme, painful—one big, discontinuous, shattering break.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Totally wrong.

Before we talk about exactly what works in changing an organization, take a minute to review the list above as a checklist for what you had planned. If your “big idea” sounds like any of the above “myths” – actually mistakes – you need to pause and think before you  take a leap of faith.

The first thing to rethink is your idea that what needs to change is your organization. Or your company, team, family, community, marriage … substitute whatever you would like. What needs most to change is YOU … and that’s where to start.

You’ve created the status quo. You have a role in it. If you change yourself, then everything connected to you will likewise change. That’s the basic meaning of systems where you are one of many interconnected elements. If you advise change but do not change yourself, the change you imagine will be sabotaged. If you try to fix the organization, or another person, without changing yourself, your connected role will result in the work you intend to achieve to unravel and fall apart. Because it is external to you and your role in it.

People know this. Every team and organization is very familiar with announcements by the leader: “It’s time for everything to change so that we can achieve our dreams!” Another ten point program, book to read, workshop to attend and a motivational speech about what failures they have been to achieve the current status quo – whatever that is.

What they’ve learned, to their regret, is that nothing changes with this sort of change. It’s not everything that will change, just a few things that bug the leader; what bothers the people will not be addressed. It’s not the people’s dreams, but the leader’s dreams; what the people desire and dream of does not come up. Why? Because the leader has bypassed the people to get on with the plan, and left the people behind. And demotivated, when they remember all the frequent and familiar announcements like this one in the past.

As Jim Collins puts it: Here are the facts of life about these and other change myths. Companies that make the change from good to great have no name for their transformation—and absolutely no program. They neither rant nor rave about a crisis—and they don’t manufacture one where none exists. They don’t “motivate” people—their people are self-motivated. There’s no evidence of a connection between money and change mastery. And fear doesn’t drive change—but it does perpetuate mediocrity. Nor can acquisitions provide a stimulus for greatness: Two mediocrities never make one great company. Technology is certainly important—but it comes into play only after change has already begun. And as for the final myth, dramatic results do not come from dramatic process—not if you want them to last, anyway. A serious revolution, one that feels like a revolution to those going through it, is highly unlikely to bring about a sustainable leap from being good to being great.  

Effective change begins by the leader changing. It’s possible that if you start there, you won’t need to make any sort of announcement at all; people who are connected to you may just adjust to your new way of being and doing.

So before you embark on changing everyone else, or changing the world, stop and think. Then move forward wisely.



Quote in italics above is from the article: GOOD TO GREAT by Jim Collins; Fast Company, October 2001

Book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t  by Jim Collins; HarperBusiness; 1 edition (July 19, 2011)

Review of the book:

Photo by “OneMethod” courtesy of the Flickr Creative Commons license –


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