Pick-Up Sticks and the Change Game
by Rick Brenner
When we change organizational culture, we often stumble over unexpected obstacles. Sometimes the tangle can be so frustrating that we want to start the company over again. Here are some tips for managing large-scale cultural change.
Dale had to admit that Lucas was a problem, just as Barb had predicted. "I don't know what to do about him," he said. "Sometimes I just want to wait until the next reorg and then try again after we boot Lucas."
"Oh, great idea. And you can cancel Marigold the same day," Barb suggested, not seriously — they needed Lucas. "And then you can resign, too. Neat. I like it."
"Yeah," he said. Dale sighed, staring at nothing. "I get it, I just don't know what to do."
Culture change is difficult. Complex change projects tend to expose management problems of long standing, which then interfere with the change effort. But culture change is easier if we keep in mind some lessons from the game of Pick-Up Sticks.
When I was little, we had to while away a lot of summer days, mostly doing kid things I can't tell you about. But I can tell you about a game called Pick-Up Sticks. It came in a cardboard tube with a jillion thin, colored sticks, about five inches (13 cm) long, with sharp, pointy ends. Because of the pointy ends, the game is probably illegal today, or frowned upon, even though hardly anybody ever got seriously injured playing Pick-Up Sticks.
is like playing
You want to change
some things, and keep
others as they are.
Surprises pop up
everywhere.You play the game by gathering all the sticks (except the black one) in a tight fist, and then dropping them on the floor so they land in a tight jumble. Then the players take turns picking up the sticks from the pile one by one, using the black stick as a tool, until more than one stick moves. When that happens, you lose your turn and the next player takes over.
Executing organizational change is like playing Pick-Up Sticks, because you want to change some things, and keep others as they are. Surprises pop up everywhere. Here are some lessons for change agents from the game of Pick-Up Sticks.
- Address first those issues that stand alone. Dealing with interlocking problems is hard.
- If two players work on two sticks at the same time, both lose. Work on only one issue at a time.
- Be deliberate
- Change, like Pick-Up Sticks, requires patience and concentration. Move slowly, plan carefully, and simulate.
- Watch for interlocks
- Sometimes sticks rest on each other in an interlocked loop: A on B, B on C, and C on A. Removing one disturbs the others. When you have no choice, do the best you can.
- Watch the weather
- Pick-Up Sticks is more fun on a calm day. Winds make it difficult. Change efforts are much easier when the outside world is stable and supportive. Don't wait for turbulent times.
If you're working on a change project, get a can of Pick-Up Sticks for your desk. Once in a while, when you're stumped, play a game — it will help clear your mind. Top Next Issue
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More articles on Organizational Change
- Workplace Taboos and Change
- In the workplace, some things can't be discussed — they are taboo. When we're aware of taboos, we can choose when to obey them, and when to be more flexible. When we're unaware of them, they can limit our ability to change.
- Comfortable Ignorance
- When we suddenly realize that what we've believed is wrong, or that what we've been doing won't work, our fear and discomfort can cause us to persevere in our illusions. If we can get better at accepting reality and dealing with it, we can make faster progress toward real achievement.
- When Fear Takes Hold
- Leading an organization through a rough patch, we sometimes devise solutions that are elegant, but counterintuitive or difficult to explain. Even when they would almost certainly work, a simpler fix might be more effective.
- The True Costs of Cost-Cutting
- The metaphor "trimming the fat" rests on the belief that some parts of the organization are expendable, and we can remove them with little impact on the remainder. Ah, if only things actually worked that way...
- Reactance and Micromanagement
- When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden, or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
See also Organizational Change for more related articles.
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