If you travel out of downtown Toronto along Queen Street East you will eventually reach the bridge that spans the Don River.  Atop the bridge is a line of text which reads:

“This river I step in is not the river I stand in”

The quote is paraphrased from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Sources seem to agree that what he wrote was actually something like “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.” (Which come to think of it sounds a bit like Yoda).

Heraclitus spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of change, and eventually concluded that permanence is an illusion and that change is the only true reality.  His entire philosophy on change can be summed up in two words – Panta rhei – “everything flows”.

We are a long way away from 500 BC.  Perhaps the passage of time makes simple truths seem archaic, or perhaps our harried lifestyles prevent us from considering the implications of something so fundamentally straightforward.

Here’s what I take away from it:  the longer your change initiative takes the less likely the outcome will match your expectations. Because everything is always changing.

You are aiming at a moving target. It might not feel that way, because you are caught up in the flow of change just like everything else is. But change is unpredictable; in a change initiative of a long duration there are just too many variables in play to be able to accurately predict what the future is going to look like. You have a vision of what you want the future to look like but there are no guarantees. It’s possible that you may get lucky and that the target may remain more or less where you expected to be, but it’s equally likely that the target will not be where you expected it to be, nor will it be what you expected it to be. This makes it likely that you will need a change initiative within your change initiative, costing more money and more time.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, particularly if you have invested a lot of time and money in first place.

The best way to minimize this risk is to make the change cycle shorter. Your target has less time to shift if the duration is shorter and you will be able make any required course corrections prior to the start of the next change cycle. It will cost less and take less time than the alternative – executing a long duration change initiative and having to stop and restart several times for rework and realignment.

There are added benefits to this approach. Investment is deferred. Benefits are delivered earlier. Change is more gradual, making it easier for the business and individuals to digest.  And the initiative is far easier to manage.

As well as having a much greater probability of success.

More about the artist Eldon Garnet and the art installation (Time and a Clock) of which the bridge is part.

photo credit: gorbould via photopin cc


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