The maxim that "the only certainty is change" is a popular one, particularly -- and not surprisingly -- with change management consultants.
The idea dates back to at least the fifth century BC and the Greek philosopher Empedocles, who described the universe as being in a state of things constantly coming together and splitting apart again. Today, astrophysicists talk in terms of expansion and contraction in the universe, while in the natural world we see continuous change in biological organisms, including ourselves.
In business, too, there is evidence of change all around us. New technologies emerge and new markets develop, while old markets dry up and established brands go into decline.
Change is an essential part of business life and must be managed like anything else. The present predicament of Marks and Spencer, the UK retailer, shows what happens when a company fails to adapt in time to changes in its markets and the business environment.
We can see that change is constant. But is it the only constant? Some appear to think it is. Tom Peters, the American management guru, believes that if businesses are to succeed they must not only accept change but must actively seek to create it. Only continuous, radical change, he says, will keep companies ahead of their competitors. To the adage "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", he replies: "If it's not broke, it's because you haven't looked hard enough. Fix it anyway."
But there is a danger that by changing for change's sake, we will lose our perspective. In the late 1990s, many believed that e-commerce would transform retailing entirely, and that old fashioned bricks-and-mortar shops would become obsolete, with online shopping as the new dominant paradigm. This did not happen and many of the companies founded on this principle were spectacular failures. What happened instead was that e-commerce became an alternative marketing channel, complementing rather than replacing traditional shops. This was recognised by companies such as Tesco, the UK-based supermarket group, which has balanced the development of e-commerce with the demands of customers.
Indeed, one of the keys to business success may be not so much the need to manage change as the need to strike a balance of change and continuity. Companies that are successful over the long term are often the ones that have found that balance. Coca-Cola has different ownership, different managers and a different structure, but its brand, its market and its core proposition have remained at heart unchanged over the past 50 years or more. The same is true of Heinz, Walt Disney Corporation, Sony, IBM and many others.
In 1876, Henry Heinz set his newly founded food company the goal of producing quality food at affordable prices. That mission has remained unchanged with the result that customers know and appreciate what Heinz stands for. The Heinz 57 brand, established in 1896, remains one of the world's most recognisable brands.
Commenting on this sense of continuity in their 1994 book Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras debunked the "myth of change", as they called it. "A visionary company almost religiously preserves its core ideology, changing it seldom, if ever," they argued. "Core values in a visionary company form a rock solid foundation, and do not drift with the trends and fashions of the day."
So, the belief that "the only certainty in business is change" is a fallacy. Change is omnipresent and affects us all but this does not mean that everything must change all the time.
One of the keys to change management is knowing what to change and when and what to leave alone. Fixing things that are not broken may give a warm sense of personal achievement, but it also costs time and money that could be better spent in other activities.
Unnecessary change provides the illusion of progress: often, that is worse than no progress at all.
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