“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day.
Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.
Ask a man what he really wants, and sometimes it’s just a fish stick.”
– Ancient Proverb
Be honest: who hasn’t sat through a riveting keynote speech where the CEO / ship captain recalls, in harrowing edge-of-your-seat suspense, how methodology XYZ (as outlined in his or her latest book available in the lobby for $24.95) saved the day as s/he stood steadfast at the helm while navigating thrashing waves, battering rain, and biblical-level winds (not to mention pirates, scurvy, and an irritating white whale)? Makes you want to do something…EPIC…like a “radical transformation,” doesn’t it? Blimey, let’s get started right now!
Well, before you even cast off, you might want to first check where the winds of change are blowing and if the crew is on board yet.
It’s easy to get swept up in these tales because who doesn’t want to be telling a better story, on a bigger stage, five years from now? Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against you because most large-scale change programs fail to meet their objectives. What about all those overnight “bounty of success” stories? It seems like they are happening all the time, but they really aren’t. No doubt many are embellished by authors, publishers, and consultants to serve their own needs, but more importantly, the “How?”s are almost always just a little more complex and difficult than what’s written in those 250 carefully-curated pages.
Now I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing the really hard work if you do have the opportunity, but please, be even more honest with yourself – do you really have that opening to achieve your change agenda? Let’s not forget how CEO Bob Nardelli’s efficiency program almost capsized Home Depot because he failed to comprehend what kind of transformation his organization could handle. The weather conditions have to be just right to sail around the world unscathed.
Conversely, there is nothing inherently wrong in starting with small improvements and expectations – whether it’s performing incrementally better on the line, solving a pesky R&D problem, or making your customers just a little happier. It may not be nearly as heroic-sounding, but people and organizations generally learn and change in small bites at first because that’s just how human brains and cultures work. Maybe that small hors d’oeuvre of improvement wets their appetite for a bigger meal later, or else maybe it just turns out to be some bad shellfish never to be eaten again. Either way, if the organization was only ready for a small change experiment, then at least it didn’t waste a lot of precious resources planning for something bigger than it could swallow. And just like Dramamine, it prevented the long-term nausea and gag reflex that a failed change program often leads to.
The takeaway here is that if you (most likely not the CEO) are trying to force a bigger, bolder, faster change program than your or your client’s organization is ready for, then you are not just guilty of improvement overproduction, but you are also risking their health and well-being if the change goes belly up. And being “ready” means being truly ready at all levels – shareholders, executives, managers, and the front line.
So before you try to boil the ocean and inadvertently kill all the fish forever, check your organization’s/team’s/client’s hunger and see what they can realistically digest right now. Sometimes it’s just a fish stick – and that’s okay.