My last post, Times of transition, attracted comments on one paragraph in particular. I have amended that paragraph to improve clarity. I want to take the amended paragraph for today's brief muse. I wrote:
It's odd, but generally those who push hardest for change are those who feel most secure in their own general life. This holds for most commentators, senior managers and policy advisers. Alternatively, those pushing for revolutionary change at the other end of the spectrum are often very insecure and wish for a new life, wish to overthrow the system. Both wish to force change on others.
There is a constant stream of stories in the Australian media that centre in some way on change and the need for change. This isn't new, of course, but the thread is ever present.
At national and state levels, we talk about competition, about productivity improvement, about raising standards. We package changes and call them, say, the education revolution. At firm level, CEOs from Qantas's Joyce to the ANZ bank's Smith announce restructuring and job cuts. In the case of the ANZ, the latest cuts follow the ''One ANZ'' program. Announced on December 5, 2008, this was designed to cut costs and restructure the bank in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Change is interesting and attracts reporting. A stable PM attracts no attention. The possibility of a change in PM does. Progressive incremental modifications up or down to head count attract no attention. Larger numbers do, especially when packaged as a project or program with a specific title. Stability is boring, change interesting.
Change is inevitable and necessary. Individuals, organisations and governments are constantly adjusting to changing circumstances.
What is new over the last forty years is the focus on change as a good thing. Change has been reified, tuned from an abstract but continuing process into discrete things that have a tangible and concrete presence. The very word "change" has acquired a new and palpable presence.
Change always involves costs. These costs are always individual because specific individuals are affected. However, they can also affect groups including organisations and communities.
At present, for example, I know of two major NSW Government agencies that have gone into a kind of paralysis because of changes announced by the O'Farrell Government.
At personal level, individuals are worried about job security. They are also struggling to get their jobs done because the situation is so fluid and uncertain, because they can't get the resources they need to actually do their jobs.
The costs of change are up-front, the benefits come later. In a world of constant change, costs multiply while benefits can be constantly pushed into the future. Further, at a purely personal level, those who bear the costs of change often do not share in the subsequent benefits. There is a fundamental asymmetry in the process.
If you look at those who advocate the type of changes and change processes that I am talking about, you will see that they have a degree of security that in some ways isolates them from the specific change process or processes they are advocating or implementing. Individuals must bear pain in the interests of the nation or organisation, but they are generally not the same individuals as those advocating the change. There is a price to be paid, but it's not my price.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that ANZ CEO Smith as an example is not conscious that his decisions have human effects. However, I would suggest that Mr Smith is isolated from the practical, individual, effects. His pay, his standing with his Board, the achievement of the performance indicators built into his contract, all isolate him. He gains from others' loss.
To a degree, this goes with management responsibilities. If you are a manager at whatever level, you have a job to do. This may include firing people, something that I have done but never found especially pleasant.
However, I would argue that there is a balance question. We need to recognise that different interest are involved, that things are not clear cut, that there are winners and losers.
I would also argue that an imbalance has occurred, that in our obsession with reform, with achievement, with change, we have lost sight of the need for balance. I would also suggest that part of the reason for that lies in the relative security of the the change merchants, their isolation from the results of their advocacy and actions.