If you think everything’s fine, it may be time to change

Over the past few years, change managers have relied heavily on the idea of the ‘burning platform’ to help them awaken organisations to the need for change. Perhaps the most famous example was the company-wide memo sent by the then CEO of Nokia, Stephen Elop.

It is a logical approach. When things are going badly, there is little point in continuing as normal. However, such forced change is also high risk. This is clear from the original context of the phrase, which goes back to the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988.

One hundred and sixty-six crew members and two rescuers lost their lives in what was (and still is) the worst catastrophe in the fifty-year history of North Sea oil exportation. One of the sixty-three crew members who survived was Andy Mochan, a superintendent on the rig.

From the hospital, he told of being awakened by the explosion and alarms. Badly injured, he escaped from his quarters to the platform edge. Beneath him, oil had surfaced and ignited. Twisted steel and other debris littered the surface of the water. Because of the water’s temperature, he knew that he could live a maximum of only twenty minutes if not rescued. Despite all that, Andy jumped fifteen stories from the platform to the water.

When asked why he took that potentially fatal leap, he did not hesitate. He said, “It was either jump or fry.” He chose possible death over certain death. Andy jumped because he felt he had no choice—the price of staying on the platform was too high.

In a true burning platform situation, change (jumping from the platform) is high-risk, but probably less risky than not changing. Nokia is now a very different company than it was in 2011, but it is still moderately healthy.

Sometimes, however, the burning platform idea is used to engineer acceptance of change when the risks of not changing are actually not especially high. In those situations, people often see through the claims of those seeking change and so they ignore the change initiative and carry on as normal. They need a different kind of persuasion.

That is not to say that change is impossible (or unnecessary) when everything appears to be going well. Two items I came across today indicate that change might be necessary and easier in good times.

The first is a TED talk by Tony Fadell, who developed the iPod and the Nest thermostat. He starts by observing that habituation (getting used to the way things are) is a natural and often necessary human attribute. He then highlights three ways good designers (who are just a particular kind of change agent) learn to work around habituation.

The key points from Fadell’s talk are that it is necessary to take a different perspective on things (looking at the larger context and the detail) and that naive questions and observations can trigger insights that are lost to the habituated.

Law firms often talk about understanding their clients, but they rarely actually see their work from the client perspective. Likewise, trainees, new employees and other professionals within the firm can ask naive questions about the way work is done. If those questions are explored rather than batted away, novel insights might follow.

The other item is a LinkedIn post by Anne Marie McEwan. She reflects on accounts of the recent history of RIM, the BlackBerry manufacturer. Unlike Nokia, RIM has responded to the growth of Apple and Android smartphones by concentrating on improving and developing their existing products. (Nokia shifted its focus to other areas of the market.) This strategy hasn’t served RIM well. For Anne Marie, amongst the reasons for this is the difficulty of making change in times of stress.

Business as usual is constant pressure as normal but there are degrees. It can be difficult for people to take on new ideas and ways of working when they are under unbearable pressure, although I have worked with people where things were already so dreadful that they were eager to try anything.

I’ve found that the best time to instigate change is when things are not going badly. The most receptive businesses are those performing well but they know that they will need to adapt to maintain their position; they can see external threats and opportunities coming over the hill.

So the best time for change is probably before the platform is at risk of catching fire. Spotting the threats and opportunities is best done with the benefit of a design approach — noticing when everyone else hasn’t that the things you have got used to are actually bad. That’s what Apple did with the iPod and iPhone.

In the legal sector, I suspect that the predominant view is still that almost everything is fine. Certainly, the comments on a report about consolidation in the High Street bear this out. Clients (whether individuals or businesses) may have a very different view. Two posts by Bruce MacEwen detailing his experience as a client (“The Client Seat” and “The Client Seat (2)”) suggest that from that perspective things very definitely are not fine. Here are some key quotes (from Bruce and other members of the group interviewing potential advisers):

The engagement letter from Firm C (a firm you all know) has all the charm of a utility bill. Let me emphasize that they entirely skipped over the step of responding to the reasonable questions posed by the committee and went straight to an engagement letter. An oversight in the haste and press of business? Hard to believe. Presumptuous? You bet.

This letter unfortunately confirms what many think of lawyers and law firms (which I happen to believe is untrue) as heartless and rapacious (aren’t we all tired of lawyer jokes?). It would hardly rise to the level of “over investment” to reference the issues and address the recipients in more personal terms.

After many years of working with contractors, both as an IT executive and then in supply chain, I firmly believe that when vendors do not respond to an RFP as requested, it says that they will do what they want to do, not what the client wants. I have seen this pattern repeatedly – we went for the firm with the better name or more likable people only to be sorry once we were under contract. Vendor selection is like dating – if they do not treat you with respect now, it is not going to get any better when you’re hitched.

You might imagine law firms responding to RFPs would think their overriding goal should be to make it easy for the client to select their firm. If this sample of three is any indication, they seem to be operating under some alternative assumption, although it baffles me what that might be. Each in their own way made it harder for us to pick them.

If you are a lawyer, can you be sure that your clients aren’t this critical of your work? If you are, how is that? Maybe they have just become habituated, and once an alternative provider comes along with a better way of doing things they’ll transfer their allegiance. That’s what happened to Nokia and RIM. Those companies are still dealing with the aftermath.

Don’t wait for your platform to smoulder. Learn to see what needs changing while it is still possible to test things out.

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