Lampedusa’s Razor: Distinguishing Good Change from Bad Change

Posted on 18 July 2014 by cradmin

“Beware of con artists!” is good advice, especially if they can jeopardize that which we value. How good are we at recognizing a scam when it crosses our path? Here’s one that’s making its way through business corridors:

“Change is good, and resistance is bad.”

Unquestioning acceptance of that advice will get you into deep, perhaps catastrophic, trouble. Not all change is good, and resisting bad change is more than a good idea, it’s the act of a responsible business owner, executive or manager.

This is the great trap for those who embrace the idea that we must change or die: Unless we find some way to distinguish between good and bad change, we are compelled to change when faced with each and every innovation. In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, there is a sad character known as the White Knight who’s taken the advice “change is good” too literally.

The White Knight believes in embracing anything that’s new. His mistake is to accept that all change is mandatory. His sturdy horse is festooned with gadgets. There’s a small box in which he keeps his sandwiches, but it’s turned upside down “so that the rain can’t get in,” he says proudly. Until Alice points out that the sandwiches have fallen out, he was totally unaware of this significant flaw.

He’s also attached a beehive to the horse in the hope that bees will take up house and provide honey, not realizing bees never set up house on a moving horse. Then there’s the mousetrap he’s strapped on the horse’s back to keep the mice away, and the fancy anklets on his hooves to keep away the sharks – both of which seem to be working…

Yes, we must change, otherwise our organizations fall so far behind the competition that we lose effectiveness and fade into obsolescence. On the other hand, to embrace every change is the path to chaos.

Our problem, despite the many dinosaurs lumbering in the tar pits of yesterday, is not the lack of recognition that change is necessary. It is that there is far too much change to choose from. We suffer from an abundance of choice and a shortage of judgment.

Organizations must become adept at three seemingly contradictory skills. We must become brilliantly effective at resisting bad change, equally effective at embracing good change and wise enough to decide between these two alternatives.

In case you missed my outrageous statement, I’ll repeat it in its pure form:

Organizations must become brilliantly effective at resisting Change.

We should not, and must not, embrace all the change placed before us.

“But we must change!” is the cry from the back of the room. Yes, I agree. We must change, otherwise the world will pass us by, but the statement “Change is good”, does not advise what type of change is good… it even suggests that ‘all’ change is good. And that’s the problem. “Change” is not by definition “good.” It merely represents a difference between what was and what is. A better restatement of this mantra might be:

“Some Change is good, and sometimes resistance is necessary.”

Or… if you value a quote more when it comes from someone famous, here’s what Viscount Falkland had to say about this:

“When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

All of this is fine, but there’s a snag. How do we distinguish the good from the bad? Since I’ve been using quotes to power this article, let’s try another one. Giuseppe di Lampedusa was a part time astronomer and Sicilian prince. He stated,

“If things are to remain the same, things will have to change.”

This humorous and seemingly self-contradictory quip contains more wisdom than is apparent at first glance.

To better see the idea snuggled inside Lampedusa’s quote, it is worthwhile dissecting it a little bit.

“If things1 are to remain the same, things2 will have to change.”

things1 – Refers to that which is important to our mandate. These are the things that are of value to our constituents, our superiors and us.

things2 – Refers to all the other stuff that surrounds us, stuff we might have become attached to, but which in the final analysis, contributes little to the achievement of things1.

That’s the key. By slicing the status quo into those two categories, Lampedusa provides us a means by which to examine the value of any change in front of us. Does the proposed change reinforce, support or extend a previously established organizational objective? If it doesn’t, then enthusiastic acceptance is incorrect, improper and ill advised. To paraphrase Lampedusa:

“To embrace what we value, we must release what we don’t.”

These then are the two steps towards rational change. Identify what is valuable to us, and then measure every proposed change against what we have found.

Identify, as clearly as possible, why we’re here. What exactly is the role of our organization and what must we do to continue fulfilling that role? We can give this a variety of labels, from “Statement of Purpose” to “Vision Statement” to “Services Offered.” It doesn’t really matter what we call this as long as it becomes something we believe in, and against which we can measure all proposed changes.

The second step is to determine how the proposed change will fit into the context of our organization. In other words, what must change in order to protect what we value? If you’ve made it this far, then you are well into the first stages of implementing the change.

You now know why the change is necessary, i.e. what core values it is designed to protect, support or extend. This knowledge, properly communicated, will go a long way in reducing resistance to the proposed change, especially if you are willing to make public all the information that went into your decision. Nothing is more effective at reducing resistance to change than full disclosure… except perhaps being involved in the actual decision making process itself.

You now also have some idea what impact it will have on your organization, i.e. what will have to change to accommodate this change. With all of this in hand, changing shouldn’t be too difficult.

The issue of change is tricky. On one hand, you cannot avoid all change; on the other hand, you cannot embrace all change. This means we must resist the bad, embrace the good and know the difference.

Good luck.


About the Author

Peter de Jager is a change management consultant, seminar leader and speaker. His presentations use humor to challenge the myths surrounding our understanding of the change process and the benefits of technology.

Copyright© 2014, Peter de Jager. All right reserved. For information, contact FrogPond by email at [email protected]


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