Saturday, July 08, 2006

The Change Function Flavor of the Month

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and Blink! have clearly convinced publishers that a market exists for books focusing on change and what drives it and doesn't. What accounts for the sudden overturning of established products, ideas, paradigms, etc.? Why do some of the best minds predict successful change when, in hindsight, the failures should have been obvious? What actually drives people, organizations, cultures to change, and why and how is change resisted? For those who would improve an economy that serves only the society's upper tier, for those who would bring our democracy back from its current steep precipice, these questions are just as important as they are for the marketers trying to convince people to change or keep buying habits every day.

A couple of good (and quick read) books out right now capitalizing on the new interest--Joel Best's Flavor of the Month and Pip Coburn's The Change Function. Best, a criminal justice professor at the University of Delaware, is known best (sorry, couldn't resist) for his popular books debunking statistical malfeasance and malpractice. At first glance, a book outlining the processes by which fads (short-lasting shifts in behavior) and real change develop and why the first doesn't last would seem a stretch from his specialty. But anyone familiar with the reality of criminal justice policy in this country (everywhere, actually) will understand why the topic of fads is really right up his alley. Criminal justice policy is inordinately driven by fads ("three strikes" anyone?, boot camps?) and rarely based on what we know to be effective (which is itself still just formative). So Best is in his element and this short, insightful book will make you think not just about fads and how even "bright" people get hooked into thinking they are lasting but also about the frail nature and value of even "bright" people. (It's a good follow-up to Expert Political Judgment and Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense, recently reviewed here and clickable on the left.)

Best details the distinction between things that are fads and things that are more permanent, noting that in their initial phases they are very comparable, so comparable that it's not surprising that even "bright" people get them wrong. Particularly interesting is his basically psychological profiling of people who jump in on fads early, those who catch that wave, and those who have to be dragged kicking and screaming, if they ever get sucked in at all. And because of the different adopter types and their rates of adoption, he explains why so many people get in at the end, when a new change is coming and the old one dropped, and look foolish (sometimes literally--think "mullet"). He also outlines the "fad cycle" of "emerging, surging, and purging" that should serve as a nice model for those studying or just thinking about hopping aboard a given fad. He hopes that this improved understanding will allow us to understand fads and real change better and to make wiser judgments regarding them. It's this last part that seems weakest, as he clearly understands. But it's still worth the effort, especially on the part of organizations and institutions whose adopting one costly fad after another can be a tad more damaging than disco. (All right, nothing was more damaging than disco. Add your own personal fad adoption that you cringe at now here.)

Pip Coburn, a business consultant, touts his experience identifying technologies that will take off and those that are just fads, in effect applying Best's concepts to our changing technological world. His book is more useful first as a history of all the really impacting inventions that were put down by experts at their beginning and all those wonders so highly and confidently predicted to revolutionize our world that end up near-duds or glorious ones. (How many of your friends are riding Segways these days?) He seems to relish all the quotes from "authorities" who were plainly, in our hindsight, blowing it out their asses. And it does seem a little odd that no one realized that Jetson-like television telephones might not appeal to people who like talking in their pajamas or doing things they don't want others to know (again, add your own choice here). His basic point is that technology ventures are usually developed based on what the technology-obsessed developers feel consumers should want, if they just knew what was good for them, not what they do want. (I don't need to take pictures with my phone, for example. Some people do, I guess, but it's a good example of how the devices, like cell phones, remote controls, etc., give what the creators think is cool, not what old farts like me need. I want something that lets me talk, not heat up my tea, I want something that lets me change channels, not give me captions in Hindi. Yes, I know what this makes me sound like.)

His "change function" is essentially this: f(perceived crisis v. total perceived pain of adoption). This is a high-tech way of saying that people won't change until/unless the costs of not changing are higher than those of changing. You can make one of those famous social science-like four cell tables or x-axis/y-axis things that have high and low values of each variable and place people in or on them by each change they face. It's not really profound, but it does give him an analytical tool to examine a wide range of technologies that succeeded and failed in the expectations about them. If people didn't see a crisis (a need to change) or felt the pending costs of it to be lower than the TPAA (which is confusing throughout the book if you don't memorize it at the very first), then they will not hop on the change wagon. In other words, Coburn's book supplements and adds to Best's analysis of why people join a fad, why they stall, and why they never do. And, like Best, he emphasizes the extensive costs to businesses and organizations if they don't do a good job analyzing the likely outcomes of the change process, determining if this one has staying power or is the next hula hoop or pet rock. Coburn leaves us with ten questions that he feels every organization must ask in this analysis. He recommends what the business fads call "continuous learning" (but calling his advice that would mean he was part of a fad, I guess) and serious attention to the needs and feedback of consumers. Hard to argue with either of those, and Best basically agrees. You do realize, of course, that none of this is new and end both books wondering why, if it's so obvious, we still need books like this.

The answer is that, as Expert Political Judgment and Hard Facts spell out, the world is too complex to have more than a contingent position on any particular action/choice at a given time. Flavor of the Month and The Change Function give us compelling pictures of that complex world and sound advice for dealing with it. But the complexity and contingency remain, making the possibility of failure high even for those who pledge themselves to the authors' models and recommendations. They end up reinforcing the humility that should be the hallmark of anyone making minor as well as major decisions about themselves, their organizations, their nation and planet. But, just as important, they urge action and efforts to manage even in the face of the difficulties. Success can be had, even if it's often as much luck as intent. Having read the four books in this paragraph in fairly recent succession, I value even more Reinhold Niebuhr's "
Serenity Prayer," which says everything much more succinctly. The fact that you likely had to click the link to get it right says all we need to know about how far we have fallen from it and about the task Best and Coburn set themselves with these books. They're worth your time, they're quick reads, and they'll make you smarter. Let's see if we can make all that at least a fad for a while.