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What to do when the cracks appear (Part 1)

August 15, 2012

For many, the status quo is a comfortable place to live, to work, and to be safe. Policies, processes, ways of interacting are familiar, and people are invested in them. Routines are easily followed and don’t require a lot of thought. And when everyone follows and supports the status quo, no one rocks the boat. The system is fixed, in place, and not open to change.

Many organizations were that way in the past. Today, it is a recipe for failure. Because the pace of change is faster and more relentless than ever before, the organizations that are slow or closed to change will fall behind—perhaps so far behind that they are no longer viable to meet the needs of today’s marketplace. For these organizations, being open to change is a matter of survival. But many people in the organization often resist change, especially if they’ve seen previous change initiatives fail or get pushed to the side as the “program of the month.” After all, taking part in a failed initiative could mean the end of their careers.

When an organization has decided it needs to change, what should those who are asked to guide the change do? They must watch closely for “cracks in the system”: opportunities to pry open the organization, places where there is willingness to question or challenge the status quo, places where the frustration is high enough to make change possible. And when they see the cracks, they must act quickly.

Status Quo•Crack•Momentum•Change
These cracks can be quite breathtaking. A manager, known for being calm and reserved, stands up in a meeting and makes an impassioned speech about how things need to be different. A critic of change reveals the poignant personal motives behind her or his support of “the way things are” all these years. On a shop floor, a group of people decides to let go of an old grudge against management.

But not every crack is immediately obvious; sometimes it involves a small change in behavior. It can be as seemingly minor as a manager expressing support for a new idea, or someone publicly appreciating a colleague. The more committed an organization is to the status quo, the more courage it takes to speak out, and the more vulnerable these people are.

In fact, being courageous and vulnerable are the hallmarks of cracks in an organization: people stepping out into “non-status quo” territory. Their actions not only show that change is taking place, but also nudge the crack open wider. If people can hold these cracks open—continuing to step out and stay vulnerable—momentum can build and change can take place. This is not easy. The weight of the status quo is substantial, its ways time-honored.

Approach With Care (and With Partners)

Indeed, no one person can remain courageous and vulnerable in this way—holding the crack open for change to build momentum—and survive for very long in an organization. This is especially true of people guiding the change effort, who by promoting and modeling the new behaviors take substantial risks and therefore are exceptionally courageous and vulnerable. Moreover, if the momentum is not there when the crack appears, the system recloses faster and more firmly than ever. The status quo becomes even more entrenched. The efforts of the “change agents,” and even their perceived value to the organization, are at risk. This makes three ingredients of the process essential:

1. Vigilance to detect the cracks
2. Developing partnerships
3. Sensing when, where, and how to push forward when the cracks appear

Check back next week, when we conclude Corey’s article on the role of senior leaders in pressing ahead in times of change.

About the Author
Corey Jamison

Corey L. Jamison is President of The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc., named one of the Seven Small Jewels of consulting by Consulting magazine in 2010. For more than 20 years, she has partnered with Fortune 100 companies to improve their bottom-line performance by leveraging the power of all their people to accelerate results. A sought-after speaker, she has presented to The World Bank, The Conference Board, and The Brookings Institution Center for Executive Education. Her interviews and quotes have appeared on NPR, Good Morning America, and The New York Times.

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