Every time Daniel Huntsman specifies a color for a screw on a hinge, he knows there's a good chance it will change. If Huntsman Architectural Group buys a new computer to help create office designs, the CEO knows it will soon be rendered obsolete by a new and improved model. And whenever a new market develops for the 19-year-old company, as it recently has with the growing demand to design spaces for Bay area Internet start-ups, Huntsman knows it will eventually be replaced by a new market requiring new skills.
The process of change is exhausting and may be ultimately destructive if left unchecked, according to Huntsman. "I get worn out by it," says the 50-year-old, whose San Francisco firm employs 55 people. "Change is good, but too much of it wears things out. And change for the sake of change isn't always good."
Numerous business executives agree with Huntsman that change must be limited sometimes, instead of uncritically embraced, if it's to be managed effectively. The Federal Reserve Bank, 3M and Wal-Mart are a few large, successful organizations that have been singled out as being less than enthusiastic about sweeping change. The Fed, as part of its Y2K risk control effort, actually proscribed change at the end of last year and the beginning of this year. By limiting changes, it provided a stable internal processing environment-entering 2000 and minimized the changes its customers would have to make to applications that interface with the Fed's software.
Limiting change may well be an idea whose time has come. Change has been presented lately as an absolute good, something to be actively encouraged for its own intrinsic worth. But the pursuit of pointless new initiatives wastes corporate resources, warns Deborah J. Barrett, Ph.D., instructor and director of MBA Communications at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management in Houston.
"Unfortunately, businesses have gotten caught up in change for change's sake," says Barrett. "They think changing will keep them out in front of the competition. But organizations need some stability. The idea of change for change's sake isn't a good approach to managing a business."
Mark Henricks is an Austin, Texas, writer who specializes in business topics and has written for Entrepreneur for 10 years.
A Developing Phenomenon
People have been concerned about change throughout the ages. Four centuries ago, Sir Walter Raleigh warned, "There is nothing exempt from the peril of mutation." In the early 20th century, management innovators like Frederick W. Taylor studied the effects of changes in compensation schemes on worker productivity. And in 1970, author Alvin Toffler made change a popular issue in his book Future Shock.
"The key guy was Alvin Toffler," says Jerome Katz, a professor of management at Saint Louis University. "He was the first one saying the pace of change was accelerating and could get too fast for people."
Future Shock was a bestseller in its first year. Since that time, however, attitudes toward change have, well, changed. That's notably true in business. And today the concept that change can be beneficial has been distorted to the point that it's embraced uncritically by the average executive, explains Katz. "Change is now a generic good," he says. "If you say you're not in favor of change, people look at you funny."
Love of change is, to some extent, a particularly American passion. "In many parts of the world, change is looked upon skeptically," Katz says. China, for instance, is both a hotbed of entrepreneurship and a highly traditional society simultaneously, he notes. Other societies make that work.
Americans, especially entrepreneurs, embrace change because it creates opportunities for new approaches that can spawn new enterprises. In some industries, an obvious one being technology, product evolution is so rapid that finding some way to endure a punishing rate of change is vital, notes Barrett.
But no matter where you are, what industry you operate in or how large or small your business is, change has two constant features. "Change is a classic double-edged sword," says Katz. "It's a stress and a benefit. And when the stress gets to be too great for the benefit, you need to stop."
Know Your Limits
The first step in effectively limiting change is to know when you're experiencing too much. It's impossible to stay in business without changing at all, so how do you know when you're changing too much? There are several signs of excessive change.
The most important one comes from employees. Any time they don't seem to know the company's objective, suspect that change has outpaced the human ability to adjust. "When there's a feeling among employees that there's no core direction or principles from which they can operate, that's a real danger sign," Barrett says.
Of course, it's not always easy to discern employees' inner states. But you can look at objectively measurable traits such as trends in absenteeism, employee turnover and error rates to help reveal a work force overstressed by change. In a small business, you may notice employees taking longer lunches or spending more time on personal phone calls, says Katz. "You're seeing overwhelmed people who are trying to give themselves some space," he says.
When employees need space, you can either give it to them the way you want them to have it, or they will make it for themselves, Katz notes. The most basic way to guide change-stressed employees toward effective management of stress is to declare a hiatus on change as the Fed did. "Slow down," advises Katz. "Let things stand for a while. Give everyone a chance to catch their breath."
It may be a good idea to provide employees with more training, which will allow a breather while straightening the learning curve. The discomfort and pressure of learning a new, required skill is a basic cause of change-related stress. "When you change something," Katz notes, "all those people who were competent at something a week ago are now bad at it. So they don't feel good about themselves."
If taking a break is not an option, you can attempt to alter everyone's perspective on change. For instance, if employees are feeling crushed by pressure to master new skills, officially proclaim that the company is in a learning mode. Doing so will reduce some of the pressure to perform perfectly in an unfamiliar environment. "Being a student gives people permission to make mistakes," Katz observes.
If you opt for a break, it doesn't have to be a long one. Huntsman believes even a very small step back from the hurly-burly pace of e-mail- and fax-driven business communications can help. "One of the ways we try to manage change," he says, "is to just let somebody sit down and think about something for five minutes."
No one can escape change completely, and it would probably be fatal for any entrepreneur to try. The trick is in realizing when additional change will really improve opportunity and when it will damage a company by overstressing it.
Huntsman says it's all in knowing what your company is truly good at, and distinguishing between that core concern and the details of how it performs its work. "You can change the way you do things," he observes, "but you can't change who you are."
Huntsman Architectural Group, (415) 394-1212, firstname.lastname@example.org