Disruption does not work. It usually gets stuck in destruction. A more balanced perspective on change brings together the successful approaches of continuous improvement and innovation. Successful development, change and transformation is based on the sufficient balance of these two basic approaches to change management. A learning organisation knows about this balance. A thriving organisation also knows about the sufficiency requirements of change: the innovation of innovation, the continuous improvement of innovation, the continuous improvement of continuous improvement and the innovation of continuous improvement.
We only need to run when we missed the train. All this talk about change, transformation and disruption is more than anything else crying out loud: We missed the train. This is certainly not a nice situation to be in and presumably nothing to advertise or even be boastful about. Especially when it comes to disruption, we see no evidence for any kind of beneficial approach. What we see is a lot of destruction and very little results. There are better approaches to master change, and we saw excellent practices in the last decades already.
In the 1990s continuous improvement was the approach to choose to successfully change and develop an organisation. Based on Total Quality Management (TQM) and approaches like Six Sigma and Lean the productivity of operations got boosted. When the effect of continuous improvement slowed down in the 2000s, innovation was the call of the day. We remember the shift in General Electric’s (GE) policies when Jeff Immelt took over from Jack Welsh. Doing things differently, doing new things allowed for new products, new markets and new revenues.
From here the management of change took a wrong turn, or better, they did not turn but thought –when the returns on innovation diminished – more of the same would be a good thing and promoted disruption. That was not so smart. Economists know that in cases of diminishing returns the way to turn is towards another factor, but certainly NOT doing more of the same. The I Qing, the ancient book of change, advises the same. When it comes down to change, it promotes balance – the balance between Yin and Yang. Between the one force that integrates and the other force that transforms.
Continuous improvement bears the qualities of Yin. With each iteration, with each Lean or Six Sigma project we climb the learning curve, realising a lot initially and having diminishing returns the further we get. If you clean the office and bring your files in order on Monday it makes a real difference. If you do this again on Tuesday there will be little effect.
Innovation bears the qualities of Yang. When the learning curve flattens you jump and do something different, something new, you enter a new learning curve at its bottom, all the fruits of it right in front of you. If, however, you keep innovating, you lose its positive effect. If you move into a new office on Monday, it makes all the difference, allows for new order and new practices. If you move on to the next new office on Tuesday, you will hardly get your act together again.
The magic formula the I Qing and respectively the Tai Chi philosophy advises is to keep the balance of both and oscillate between the two. Continuous improvement is followed by innovation is followed by continuous improvement and so on. Climb the learning curve and when it flattens move on to something new! This rhythm does not only drive change but lies at the very heart of the learning organisation so desperately sought after for the last 30 years.
Successful managers know this and are wary of one change management wave following the next. They get the basics right, know when to continue improving and when to innovate. They are always on time for the train.