What Dial Up Internet Can Teach Us About Managing Change
If you are old enough to remember the early days of the internet, you have probably blocked out memories of alien sounds emerging from your modem and the tapping of your fingers as you waited for a single page to load. I remember how pages would load up just a few lines at a time, finally appearing in entirety after several long seconds.
And then there were images. The loading of an image would take even more time thanks to the fatal combination of transferring a large amount of data over a sloth-like internet connection. As a result, pictures would first appear as a blurry and pixilated blob. Then, a second iteration of bands appeared from the top to bottom. The picture would be a little clearer the second time around, as if someone were wiping water from the screen. A third and sometimes a fourth iteration were often necessary for the picture to finally show clearly.
Memories of the early days of internet and waiting for images and pictures to become their proper selves remind us of what it is like to lead an organization in which we need to drive change. Like an image loading in the days of dial up, managing change in an organization requires us to pursue progressive iterations of improvement.
Consider a struggling small business that manufactures consumer products. Imagine the factory equipment is old and worn, quality control has waned, and employees are constantly fighting to work through antiquated processes. Now, imagine you are appointed to get the factory back on its feet.
This hypothetical example is unfortunately far too common. Businesses drift from their glory days and do not adapt to changing times. Managing such a business scenario, or any major change in business for that matter, will frequently present you with piles and piles of problems. Morale problems, quality problems, cash problems and culture problems are common examples of the headwinds you may face.
Finding themselves in this scenario, many managers are eager and anxious to get started. They have grand ideas and visions for how to fix problems and create changes in the business that will bring it back to life. But after six months of roadblocks and setbacks, that initial energy will often lead to frustration and discouragement.
Managing significant change takes time, and will not happen overnight. It is important that as a manager or business leader, you set your expectations accordingly. Further, you should prepare yourself not for a swift act that will be over in moments, but rather a journey of progressive improvement that will ultimately lead you to your goal. Here enters dial up internet.
The next time you face a long uphill battle of change, establish a vision for where you want to be. From there, be sure to set incremental goals for your progress. Then, think about it in terms of that picture loading over a dial up internet connection:
The First Iteration:
Get a basic structure, or shape around what the future state will look like. It may be rough, fuzzy and hazy, but at least there’s a basic starting point upon which you can build. Don’t worry about every detail, simply outline the shape.
The Second Iteration:
Once you have a basic structure in place, add some more detail to that image. If product quality is the challenge that warrants immediate attention, create a training plan for your employees. Establish additional in-process inspections to help catch defects sooner. The key is to build upon the basic image to help mature it to something that is more clear and controlled.
The Third Iteration:
Over time, you can get more specific with the tweaks and changes you make. Once you are able to increase production quality, for example, use the data of the improved quality to help instill pride in employees and restore morale. Tack on whatever small improvement you can make to help improve the clarity of the final image.
The Fourth Iteration:
As time goes on, you can continue to refine and sharpen the operation of the business. Once things begin to run more smoothly and under control, use some freed up cash to upgrade machinery, or to remodel a rundown office. Eventually, by pursuing pieces of change, you can get the full picture with exquisite detail.
Let’s face it. Change is difficult. But when it comes to driving change, think back to the days of dial up to help ground your expectations. With a solid strategy and a bit of patience, you will succeed. But when you get there, remember it all started out as a blob.
The Power of Incremental Progress (Blog Post)