The Illusion of Change


Chris Copeland

Most businesses must adapt and change in order to succeed, but only the ones that realize that big changes might be necessary will truly be successful in this fluid industry.

There is a general perception that the enemy of progress is the status quo – people who throw up their hands and reluctantly acknowledge, “Well, that’s the way it’s always been done.”

While that is a problem that invariably resolves itself, history tells us that those who hide behind the status quo end up exposed when disruptive challengers appear and eradicate the past from impeding the future. It’s often an unnecessary delay, but it is dealt with sooner or later.

Instead, what is really the enemy of progress for most companies is change. The problem begins with generic proclamations like, “We’ve got to change to stay relevant.” If the starting point for business evolution is verbalizing a given, it’s a bad sign. Every successful business evolves, change is a part of what must happen, and if people must declare a necessity for it, the battle is likely already lost.

In fact, when people start declaring the need for change, they often fail to understand what change must happen and go in search of changes that feel good to them. The hard truth is change that matters is rarely comfortable. Almost never is the change required to be successful something people would wish on their worst enemies. Change, real change, is hard and uncomfortable and even unpleasant to endure. In the classic brick-and-mortar world, you can look at RadioShack’s failed rebrand to “The Shack” or JCPenney’s belief that a pricing strategy change under a new leader was the silver bullet solution. It was change, but it failed to address the real underlying issues.

It’s not just established companies that do this; start-ups do it as well, but they call it a pivot. The sector is littered with companies that fell into this trap. In the past few years there are more than you can count, but Color, originally a photo-sharing app that failed to connect and subsequently became a video app, and The Daily, a failed iPad newspaper that arrived to great acclaim, fit the description to a tee. They go from doing one thing to moving to another shade of the same thing. They tweak, modify, and alter. It’s change, without a doubt. And it’s an illusion.

People talk all the time about breaking down silos, about integration and collaboration. Those concepts, like change, are well-meaning but hard. They require complete organizational change, massive financial investments in human capital, and technological systems. They require a willingness of everyone to abandon much of what was known and familiar in favor of the unknown.

And in the end only a select few succeed. They succeed because they realize that the only thing worse than doing it the way it has always been done is to do it slightly different under the guise of change.