Change is a process, not an event…

EscherAs Ethan wrote, I have this line that I’ve been using for many years: Change is a process, not an event.

I don’t remember where I heard it first or what I liked about it, but I realized that it was a truism, an axiom, that should be remembered.

As a software Product Manager, I’m always reminding myself of this axiom, particularly when I get into discussions with people who believe that re-architecting our product for the next major release is absolutely necessary.

While it may seem easy to rewrite code that has existed for years to make it “better”, in reality this is rarely the case. And even if you can succeed in rewriting or rearchitecting everything in one fell swoop, the impact of that change has far flung impacts that cannot be dismissed. Even the biggest, and in theory, smartest companies, who’ve been in the technology business for decades, seem to have to learn this lesson the hard way.

Case in point, Microsoft Vista. In an interview in Intelligent Enterprise, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, stated that:

“We made an upfront decision that was, I’ll say, incredibly strategic and brilliant and wise — and was not implementable,” Ballmer said. “We tried to incubate too many new innovations and integrate them simultaneously, as opposed to letting them bake and then integrating them, which is essentially where we wound up.”

Another impact of the changes in Vista helped coin a new term in 2007: craplets.

These are 3rd party software products that come pre-installed on computers when purchased from vendors. While a source of revenue for the vendors, they have become a headache for consumers.

Now the problem here is not specific to Microsoft. Any large or complex system that undergoes rapid changes will require time to fully absorb the change, identify impacted systems or components and then attempt to address them. When rapid change events happen in the real world, they are called revolutions and are often times bloody and painful.

In business, no one wants to be “revolutionized” by some vendor’s product. Rapid change raises questions of control, uncertainty and discord. The field of Change Management is defined as:

a structured approach to change in individuals, teams, organizations and societies that enables the transition from a current state to a desired future state

In short, an end-to-end process.

Companies regularly fail to understand, or at least acknowledge, the full impact of their actions on downstream systems and participants. And remember, if you are a vendor and are imposing change on your customers or partners, they are likely dealing with similar change being imposed on them by their other vendors. Thus, they not only have to deal with multiple change events or processes, but they have to understand and manage the impact of all of them combined. Not a simple task. The easier you can make it for them to accept your change — through a managed and clear process — the more likely they will adapt to it and the sooner they will benefit from it.

If you have any “change event” or”change process” stories to share, I’d love to hear from you.