Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 47;   November 20, 2002: Pick-Up Sticks and the Change Game

Pick-Up Sticks and the Change Game

by

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."

Pick Up Sticks

A game of Pick Up Sticks in progress. Photo (cc) by SA 4.0 by Mokkie.

"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.

Organizational change
is like playing
Pick-Up Sticks.
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.

Isolate
Address first those issues that stand alone. Dealing with interlocking problems is hard.
Focus
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. Go to top Top  Next issue: Trips to Abilene  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

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Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

Penguins look before they leapLook Before You Leap
When we execute complex organizational change, we sometimes create disasters. It's ironic that even in companies that test their products thoroughly, we rarely test organizational changes before we "roll them out." We need systematic methods for discovering problems before we execute change efforts. One approach that works well is the simulation.
Artist's conception of the Mars Pathfinder landing by bouncing on its airbagsTraining Bounceback
Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Frank MurphyThe Passion-Professionalism Paradox
Changing the direction of a group or a company requires passion and professionalism, two attributes often in tension. Here's one possible way to resolve that tension.
An empty theaterOrganizational Roots of Toxic Conflict
When toxic conflict erupts in a team, cooperation ends and person-to-person attacks begin. Usually we hold responsible the people involved. But in some cases, the organization is the root cause, and then replacing or disciplining the people might not help.
The iconic image of cyber code, as popularized in the film The MatrixCyber Rumors in Organizations
Rumor management practices in organizations haven't kept up with rumor propagation technology. Rumors that propagate by digital means — cyber rumors — have longer lifetimes, spread faster, are more credible, and are better able to reinforce each other.

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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