Embrace Change: Question Legacy Tools and Ideas
Remember floppy disks? Maximum capacity: 1.44 megabytes. Minimum size: 3 ½ inches. The last time you saw one was probably cleaning out your closets, ten or fifteen years ago—unless you work at the White House. According to a January profile of President Obama’s top tech advisor in the New York Times, the ex-Google[x] VP, Megan Smith, walked into her new job and downgraded to a BlackBerry, a Dell laptop from 2013, and an information storage protocol relying on a disk format that pretty much nobody alive uses anymore. How did that happen to an organization as prestigious as the top echelons of the Executive Branch?
The answer, of course, is inertia. The systems were in place, and they worked—why fix what ain’t broken, right?—but stasis in business is a killer, and any competitive group needs to make stasis its enemy. Scott Steinberg’s newest book, Make Change Work for You, positions a willingness to change at the core of his business advice: “Embrace change by taking calculated risks and meaningful action, and you'll put yourself on the path to regular reinvention—the essence of remaining relevant—and create positive, lasting effects on every level.” As Steinberg argues, embracing change as a necessary and inevitable force is the best way to avoid being steamrollered by it.
The White House isn’t in danger of being outcompeted, per se, so the risk of becoming complacent and lapsing in relevance is somewhat less than it is for the average company, but imagine if your business ran on floppies. How would you compete for talent? What engineer wants to work somewhere that ties them down to old tech?
Yet businesses are frequently just as change-averse as the White House’s digital storage habits. We see this challenge especially frequently in organizations that require strict compliance or which enjoy traditionally low competitive threats, such as financial services groups. It’s not always technology that gets stuck in the past—although it certainly can be—and it’s rare that something goes unchecked as long as the White House’s floppy disk habit, but again and again we see change-resistant culture impeding innovation.
One of the most painfully obvious way we see organizations getting stuck in the past is—due to the nature of our business—related to idea management. Many clients first come to us with a hodgepodge of complicated legacy tools and simplistic idea collection processes, frequently including submission-box-style email aliases and workflow-deficient Excel spreadsheets. The lack of processes and the clunky, user-unfriendly design of these systems is, to idea management in 2015, what floppy disks already were by 2005. Sticking with what seems to work is attractive to change-averse management, but prevents organizations from embracing the change-focused culture that is now mandatory for every business.
Financial services is a perfect example—the big banks that ran the market for decades are now besieged by consumer choice, the increased importance of regulation and compliance, and newcomers, which means that innovation and differentiation are more important to banks than ever.
Building a system that works is great. It would be impossible to succeed without doing so. But continuing to do something because it worked before, regardless of the other possibilities, is a recipe for obsolescence—whether it’s the way you think about your relationship to a customer, the system you use to manage your ideas, or the disk format your team uses to store information. On balance, the effect could be as small as an embarrassment in your New York Times profile, but it could also be as huge as missing the next needle-moving idea for your business. Change is good—and it should be the spine of your organization, all the way up to the head.