You can’t cook a frog by tossing it in a pot of boiling water. It will jump right out. The same thing happens if you try to push major change in an organization. Make your decisions stick the same way you boil a frog — turn up the heat slowly.
You’ve probably heard the old saying before: If you want to cook a frog, you can’t toss it into a pot of boiling water because it will just jump out. Instead, you put it in the water first and then slowly turn the temperature up. The frog will slowly adjust to the change until it’s too late.
It’s what’s known as incrementalism. Rather than trying to make a big change all at once, you instead make many small changes over time that lead to the end result you desire. It can be an effective tool in an environment where people are resistant to change.
How it works
Managing and effecting change in an organization can be difficult. Especially if you want to make significant changes. Sometimes you don’t have the power to make a complete and major change. In other cases, general resistance to change can be so high that projects wind up being sabotaged intentionally by people who “have always done it that way.” In such cases you can sometimes create major change over time by making many smaller changes first.
Say, for example, you want to migrate your organization from Windows to Linux, both on the desktop and in the server room. This is, of course, a major change that is sure to cause severe impacts up and down the organization. One option is to set out a migration plan and get it done as quickly as possible. Perhaps take capital projects with large investments, system conversions, and rollouts and try to do it within a couple of quarters.
This, of course, is probably doomed to failure. Users will resist as will probably some people in IT you work with. A well thought-out and argued business case for Linux vs. Windows may not be enough to allow you to implement such a change. Even assuming you’re the CIO who has the power and support of the CEO to make such significant change, there may be enough resistance and revolt to make it nearly impossible.
So, what do you do? Rather than implement a massive rollout of Linux, you install it incrementally in the organization. You start replacing individual Windows-based services on the backend with Linux-based ones. As a server goes down or reaches capacity and needs to be replaced, you substitute a Linux-based one for a Windows one. On the desktop side, you set up a “pilot program” or identify power users and other influencers in the organization who you can convert to Linux and use those users to effect change on the other users.
If everything goes well, over time resistance will drop and acceptance will increase. Users will see the advantage of the new solution and notice that the end of the world hasn’t occurred because of your change. Then you can complete the conversion. You will wind up at your ultimate destination and with minimal resistance along the way. It even allows you time to notice problems and adjust for them along the way, increasing the probability of long-term success.
The problems with incrementalism
Certainly incrementally implementing change isn’t always the best way to go. Sometimes radical change is needed and needed quickly. By definition, incrementalism takes time. If you’ve identified a significant problem in your organization, confronting it right away and involving the parties affected can be a more effective solution.
There can also be a tone of underhandedness and manipulation involved by going an incremental route. A confrontational approach to change gets all the issues out on the table and allows for full debate. It also leads to more solid decisions right or wrong. If you try to implement change incrementally in the background, you may be viewed as trying to undermine decisions in place or being subversive in some form or fashion. A way to avoid this may be to properly sell what you want to do in advance.
The bottom line for IT leaders
Implementing change is never easy. This is especially true in an environment that’s heavily resistant to change. One way to get the outcome you want and to get your plans implemented is to make small changes over time rather than large changes all at once. By making incremental change, you may be able to adjust attitudes and overcome resistance. Users might not even notice the changes you’ve made until it’s too late.
Just remember the recipe for success in boiling a frog.