Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 25;   June 23, 2021: What Keeps Things the Way They Are

What Keeps Things the Way They Are

by

Changing processes can be challenging. Sometimes the difficulty arises from our tendency to overlook other processes that work to keep things the way they are. If we begin by changing those "regulator processes" the difficulty can sometimes vanish.
Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Portrait of Isaac Newton (1642-1727). This is a copy of a painting by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689). Image courtesy Wikimedia.

If you've ever participated in a workplace change initiative, you know how difficult Change can be. The difficulty of changing organizations raises an intriguing question: Why is change so difficult? One part of the answer might be found in the answer to another question: Why are things the way they are?

When I used to ask clients this question, the most frequent responses related to origin. People tended to focus on causes, authorship, history, and the like. While this information is fascinating, it isn't usually very helpful to the change agent. It's unhelpful because in many cases the original author or the original cause that brought about the current status quo is no longer active in the present situation.

That's why I now prefer a different question: "What keeps things the way they are?" Answers to this question can be more helpful because the question focuses our search on factors that are active in the present situation. They might be acting to prevent change.

The bogus law of process inertia

My own view Over time, processes evolve unless
there are control mechanisms in
place to maintain their integrity
is that things are the way they are because one or more forces act to keep them there. Often, we operate as if the reason why things are the way they are is that they were made that way once, and unless something comes along to change the situation, things remains unchanged. Sometimes I've heard people cite Newton's first law, the law of inertia:

An object at rest will remain at rest, and an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted on by a net external force.

The widespread belief is that organizational processes are also subject to a law of inertia. We might call it the Law of Process Inertia. This "law" would be:

In any organization, a process will remain unchanged unless someone who has the power to change the process decides to change it.

Although this "law" is stated simply, its simplicity is deceptive. Close examination reveals serious questions about its validity.

For example, people — in some cases, many people — are responsible for executing organizational processes. And people don't always execute processes in the prescribed manner, for a variety of reasons. Some examples:

  • They don't remember how to execute the process "by the book"
  • They think of a "better" way to do it, not appreciating all the reasons why the process is what it is
  • They take shortcuts because they have too much work to do
  • They don't fully understand the process, but they do the best they can

The above list is a sample. Clearly, there are many more reasons why people deviate from prescribed processes. Over time, the effect of these deviations is to produce a new process that's similar to the prescribed process, but which can differ from it in important respects. In this way, processes evolve unless there are control mechanisms in place to maintain their integrity.

That's why I believe that the Law of Process Inertia isn't a law. Processes can change even if no powerful individual decides to change them.

One reason why changing processes is difficult

Although processes can drift and change by slow evolution, they can be difficult to change when we want to modify them. "Change" in this sense means "change in the way we want them to change, and in the timeframe we want." To change a process we must arrange for the users of that process to adopt whatever modifications comprise the change. That's the part that can be difficult.

Suppose P is the process we want to change. Difficulty in changing P can arise when there are mechanisms in place in the organization that act on P to drive it to some goal configuration that differs from the configuration we seek. The goal-seeking action of these mechanisms might or might not be an intended consequence of any other organizational process. And the people of the organization responsible for P might or might not be aware of these mechanisms.

Worse, the goal configurations for the different mechanisms acting on P can differ. In that case, the mechanisms seeking to affect P tend to "fight it out." The end result for P might or might not be explicitly a goal of any of the mechanisms influencing P.

Here's an example.

Consider a particular process P. P is documented, but the documentation is out of date. Fortunately, Paula is an expert in P. If anyone wants to use P, and if he or she isn't quite certain how to do it, Paula helps out. For years, Paula's performance reviews have included comments about her cheerful willingness to act as an expert in P. It's a matter of pride for her and her supervisor.

From time to time, process consultants have proposed automating much of P. Paula and her allies, including her supervisor, haven't been very cooperative in these efforts. Indeed, they've often expressed disapproval of the design proposals for Automated-P.

What's happening here is that the performance management system is acting to keep P in its current state, preventing the introduction of Automated-P. Paula and her supervisor base their self-esteem, in part, on Paula's expertise in P. No one designed P this way. Keeping P from changing isn't the purpose of the performance management system, but that's nevertheless what it does.

Last words

Even though processes slowly evolve on their own, changing them in some way can be difficult unless we first uncover the mechanisms that work to hold them more or less in place. In some cases, if you can identify and alter the "regulator mechanisms" first, change initiatives can go more smoothly. If the regulator mechanisms remain untouched, then even if you succeed in changing the target process, it's likely to drift back in the direction of the old status quo. Go to top Top  Next issue: Answering Questions You Can't Answer  Next Issue

101 Tips for Managing ChangeIs your organization embroiled in Change? Are you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt? Read 101 Tips for Managing Change to learn how to survive, how to plan and how to execute change efforts to inspire real, passionate support. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Organizational Change:

FeedbackHe's No Longer Here
Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves. Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we do about it?
A sea otter and pupPower, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
Demolished vehicles line Highway 80, also known as the "Highway of Death"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.
A Carrick MatChanging Blaming Cultures
Culture change in organizations is always challenging, but changing a blaming culture presents special difficulties. Here are three reasons why.
Lake Chaubunagungamaug signDeciding to Change: Trusting
When organizations change by choice, people who are included in the decision process understand the issues. Whether they agree with the decision or not, they participate in the decision in some way. But not everyone is included in the process. What about those who are excluded?

See also Organizational Change and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Two bull elk sparring in Grand Teton National Park, WyomingComing February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
Stained Glass of William of Ockham in a church in Surrey, England, United KingdomAnd on February 15: Four Razors for Organizational Behavior
Deviant organizational behavior can harm the people and the organization. In choosing responses, we consider what drives the perpetrators. Considering Malice, Incompetence, Ignorance, and Greed, we can devise four guidelines for making these choices. Available here and by RSS on February 15.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.