A change agent’s philosophy

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. B. Max Dubroff
  • 702nd Munitions Support Squadron commander
Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook, Contemporary British philosophers, told us 30 years ago, "You have to throw the stone to get the pool to ripple." This simple line provides a useful metaphor on how to approach change within organizations.

The foundation of the metaphor is the pool; it is calm and many people like it that way. This could be the status quo in any organization or process. The calmness is familiarity and comfort with the environment or the way things are done.

The tool in the metaphor is the stone. In our organizations, this could be an idea for a change in a process. Just like the proverbial stones, ideas vary in size and have imperfections.

The stimulus is throwing the stone which requires effort. This part of the metaphor is the same in organizations. Change for improvement requires effort -- usually much more than the one-time act of throwing a stone.

Together the processes, ideas and efforts of the people involved combine to improve our organizations, but there are important considerations when implementing change in organizations.

First, it's important to remember the potential risk when "throwing a stone." For example, what lies under the surface of the pool? Our aim may not be perfect or we throw too hard. Therefore, it's crucial to look where we are throwing and aim well.

In organizations this is done through analysis of the environment and developing a plan of action. Granted, we can't wait until the environment is 100 percent understood otherwise, we would never take the action that's crucial to affecting change. At the very least, we need to understand the organization, the people in it and the processes that are done in order to develop a good plan.

Second, it's important to not over-do it. If we throw too many stones, it becomes disruptive to everyone else at the pool. In organizations distracting people and hurts productivity. To be effective, we need to listen and observe in order to understand the effects of the changes and use that knowledge to be more effective at implementing further change. We do not want change for change's sake; it needs to have a purpose. People will get tired of the boat rocking and move on to another pool if they don't see benefits.

Third, there are always unintended consequences. Once the ripple is started in the pool, we cannot control where it goes. In organizations, all effects need to be known; otherwise, that great idea that improves productivity could have a negative effect on productivity in another section, thereby hurting the organization instead of helping it. An example of this could be a manning cut that saves personnel costs in one area but requires remaining people to work overtime in order to do the tasks that were down-sized.

Fourth, we need to follow through. At first, the ripples can seem like waves to those who aren't ready for the change, but they are actually just ripples. People will get used to the new environment and the ripples will no longer seem daunting. As people learn to deal with bigger waves, we can make the changes more significant and get better results. Comparing the pace of Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century changes a couple in the past to what we have today illustrates how well we adapt.

Finally, it takes involvement and trust. By getting into the pool, we create ripples and some change can happen. Unfortunately, when we have many responsibilities we can't always be in every pool. We may need to rely on those already in the pool. So, when we do get in the pool, we need to work together to develop the vision for the future and the plan to pursue it. Even more, we need to mentor others in order to develop more effective stone-throwers.

As we create new ways to do our processes through these changes, we often look back on the way things were before. Sure, we liked the pool when it was calm, but now there's an excitement we couldn't do without. Times have changed. Like the change during 30 years that turned the lyrics from the "Squeeze" song above by Difford and Tilbrook from 'new wave' to 'classic rock,' we'll look back and be proud we have made things better than the way they were before.