There’s a line in the ‘Change’ chapter of my latest book, ‘Rules for Mavericks’, that starts, “If you fail to learn the lessons of David Bowie’s career, you know little.” The chapter then ends with a reference to the work of change expert, Richard Gerver, who states, “The minute you feel comfortable … Find a harder cushion.”
Both perspectives – those of the recently deceased rock polymath and of the well respected educationalist – seem to suggest that change, in life and art, as in business, is not only inevitable, but is vital for our personal growth and for that of our business life. It is through trying out new things that we (and indeed all things) evolve, and it’s an interesting perspective, as Tim Harford has noted, that the Soviet Union eventually failed, not because communism was innately flawed, but because of a lack of experimentation.
There are solid reasons (of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ variety) that might lead us to keep our focus entirely on the key component of our core business. But what can tend to happen if we expect to maintain a long career playing the hit that first made us famous is that either people grow bored of it, others write a more efficient, better version of it, or that fashion and technology move things on to the point where we’re left desolate in an empty arena wondering why no one is attending the gigs any more and that sales are non existent.
If we can accept, therefore, that change is a vital part of business growth, and we can also accept that complacency is likely to cause our eventual bankruptcy, the question occurs, how do we recognise when we have become complacent, and what versions of change are useful and which potentially destructive?
John P. Cotter’s book ‘Leading Change’ is a useful text here and outlines the external signals that any institution, entrepreneur or investor might want to keep an eye on in order to check that they are not, in fact, guilty of complacency and that whatever change is to come is not going to be forced on them by redundancy. Anyone who has been previously successful might want to view the presence of any of these seven indicators as a sign that their laurels have had rather too much weight on them recently. They are:
- No highly visible crisis.
- You measure yourself against low standards.
- Whatever you have in the way of accountability systems are rigged to make it easy for you.
- Feedback is not encouraged.
- Any evidence presented that change is needed results in finger pointing.
- You focus on marginal issues.
- You believe and buy into your own mythology.
There is a sense in our business lives that, if we have been successful at some point, then the recipe that brought us success will be eternal, and if I might share my own biggest failures in business, they have all been caused by one or a combination of the above: all of which speak of arrogance. It is arrogance caused by our former successes that leads us into the darker places as, just at the point we are most successful, we bet the farm on a hunch or move into an area of business that serves our interests rather more than it does any sensible business acumen. There is no visible crisis at this point but one is certainly dawning. Personally, it was at the point my company was having its most successful year in the relatively un-sexy realms of providing valuable consultancy for educational institutions that I decided now might be the jumping off point to spend an enormous amount of money on recording an album that, thus far, has sold in its tens. Sensible people had provided well meant feedback that this was an insensible idea, but, as Cotter has pointed out above, this advice was not only ignored but taken as a treacherous lack of belief in my multi faceted abilities.
So yes, it is vital that we experiment and that we keep our antenna open to new realms our businesses might inhabit, but one must maintain a balance between this experimentation and maintaining your core business – experimenting around the margins of the core business and not making gigantic imaginative leaps based on the overconfidence success has given you! The temptation, given that you have been successful in one field, is to believe that you are an all encompassing genius and that anything you touch will turn to gold. This is called arrogance (or complacency) and it is entirely misplaced.
The things that made you successful in the first place were your humility, your gratitude for any opportunity you received and, specifically, your hunger. The complacent person has none of these. These values have been lost and it is this complacency, this departing from your core values that will lead to the version of change that you don’t want: the version that is inflicted upon you by circumstance.
The lesson, therefore, is that if you want to be in charge of the new shape that you mutate into so that you do not become an ossified figure of the past, then, yes, you should change, but that you should focus on business very closely related to the business you have been successful in and should remember what values and qualities that brought you that initial success. You were lucky the first time. It is only being aware of this that means you might remain lucky on the second, third or fourth venture.
Phil Beadle is an award-winning teacher, author and broadcaster. His new book Rules for Mavericks – A manifesto for dissident creatives is out now, published by Crown House Publishing, priced £9.99.
 Source: Adapted from John P. Kotter, Leading Change, new edn (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), p. 42.