Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 47;   November 20, 2002:

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

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More articles on Organizational Change:

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We commit the reification error when we assume, incorrectly, that we can treat abstract constructs as if they were real objects. It's a common error when we try to motivate people.

See also Organizational Change for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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