Evolve or die
an interview with Seth Godin
Unless you're willing to adapt your business thinking,
your organization may go the way of the Dodo.
Which came first, the manager or the project? Project Management Institute 2002 Seminars & Symposium keynote speaker Seth Godin shares insight on organizational change and how project managers fit into the next-generation marketplace.
Q: You have been described as an “agent of change.” What role does change play in today's marketplace?
SG: Every company with more than one employee has developed a winning strategy: something it does to make it believe it's successful. When that winning strategy was invented—whether through luck or skill—it was unique. But the world is going to change. The winning strategy will stop working.
I think stability is overrated, and regardless, it's gone. Change is the new normal. So, the organizations that thrive will be those that organize to deal with change all the time. Companies must acknowledge that change is here and deal with it in a way that keeps you ahead of the alternatives. My job is to create the words to make it easier for organizations to make the changes that they know they need.
Q: In your book, Survival Is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution, and the Future of Your Company [Simon & Schuster, 2002], you emphasize how companies must be willing to evolve or die. What does this mean?
SG: If you talk with companies that are under stress, they say, “We're O.K.” and “We're surviving.” Why is that good enough?
What I mean by the title of my book is that we work too hard and invest too much to be satisfied with just getting by. How can we thrive and smile and grow in the face of change, rather than run screaming? The answer is to evolve—lots of small changes over time—not to put ourselves through big wrenching changes.
Q: Why are so many companies content to maintain the status quo?
SG: Management strives to describe the future. They want to rally around their version of the world. The problem is: People who predict what's going to happen next are often wrong. Companies get stuck because they fall in love with the tactics that made them successful in the first place. It's natural to defend your winning strategy, just as it's natural for the competition to invent new ones.
Most people who deal with change say that you should either get used to it or hedge your bets. Darwin says there's a system that already works—small changes over large periods of time.
Q: Many companies find they can't compete in today's environment. Did they miss something along the way?
SG: Most companies go extinct. They don't want to evolve, so they disappear. You didn't get hired to change your company; you were hired to maintain the winning strategy. The entire organization is calcified because you were hired to fit a slot in the organizational chart. I used to hire people with the thought, you're smart, you're hired. I'll find a place for you. People are treated like cogs in a factory, and companies aren't seen as a moving, changing organism.
BY ROSS FOTI
ILLUSTRATION BY RAFAEL LOPEZ
Q: What are some of the artificial barriers we as humans put up to avoid change?
SG: Every chance people have to maintain status quo, they do it. Employees fool themselves into thinking that their current jobs are safe and stable, when actually, they're not. They think change is going to get them laid off, and they'll starve to death. There's a paradox between the way we feel and the way we should feel. In fact, the safest thing to do is change all the time—the riskiest is to stay the same.
We're often apathetic about choices because we know this will lead to things remaining the same.
Q: How can management encourage employees to embrace a healthy transformation? Is there a way for those working “in the trenches” to bring issues before management without looking like a naysayer?
SG: It's not about one transformation. It's about a constant stream of them. Management shouldn't make big changes all the time. Instead, measure the effect of small changes and do more. Changes build upon each other.
So management just has to start slow, start small and not punish the people who make small changes, regardless of the outcome. Fire the people who take no risks; keep the rest.
You don't have to express to management that something didn't work if you agree in advance how to keep score. If a group of baby penguins die, the mama penguin doesn't think, “That's bad.” She thinks the others are better suited to the environment.
Seth Godin was called “The Ultimate Entrepreneur for the Information Age” by BusinessWeek. He was founder and CEO of Yoyodyne, one of the industry's leading interactive direct marketing companies, which Yahoo! acquired in late 1998. He joined Yahoo! as permission-marketing “yahoo” to integrate direct marketing, permission marketing and Internet promotions into the company's Fusion Marketing Online program for its clients worldwide. In January 2000, Godin left to pursue personal interests and continues to serve as an external advisor and consultant to the company.
He currently writes about change and how corporations and individuals can successfully deal with the massive rifts our economy is facing. Godin authored Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends into Customers [Simon & Schuster, 1999], which was an Amazon.com top 100 best-seller. He holds an MBA from Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., USA. Don't miss Godin's keynote address at 8 a.m. Monday, 7 October, 2002, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas, USA.
Q: How can we work to evolve our companies the same way nature evolves a species?
SG: Try stuff. See what works. If it works, tell other people, do it more. If it doesn't work, stop doing it. That's it. It's simple—but hard.
Q: How can a company learn to “zoom” to embrace change without pain? Who are the “zoomers?”
SG: Zoom is about not freaking out at lots of small changes. Companies can seek out people who already zoom, and they can train people who don't, but could. It's an acquired skill, but you can hire more people to do that. Companies that are moving ever faster—like Amazon.com—attract those who want that type of environment. Teaching your people bit-by-bit and hiring those who want to do it are the two most important things to do.
Q: Your message is often directed at executives looking to improve the bottom line. However, project managers sometimes find themselves acting as a change agent to inspire an organizational culture and gaining buy-in from all levels—executives and staff. How can project managers become adept at inspiring change and adapting to the environment?
SG: The best strategy is scary-simple. Do lots of things under the radar. Start the evolutionary process on tiny things that don't need approval from others. Once that [contagious behavior] is unleashed, it will spread. Your success will be noted. You'll be able to do more.
Senior management doesn't necessarily care how projects are managed, they care about results. People who are the best at this do it all the time as a matter of course; those who don't want to do it blame senior management.
Q: Success depends on the organization as a whole. How can executives work together with project managers to encourage companywide evolution?
SG: It's about how you keep score, where the reports of success and failure go and the willingness to fire people who intentionally get in the way in a misguided attempt to prevent change. Change management is a fraud, and should be avoided at all costs! It's all about management saying they know the answers. You can't manage change, it manages you.
An organization with fast generations and people who keep score will respond better to changes in the environment. But people are afraid to keep score. They think they'll find out something didn't work and they'd be embarrassed.
Q: Companies don't evolve in a vacuum—business continues both inside and outside. How can you adjust to transformation, tweaking improvements and growing in a positive direction?
SG: The job of the manager is to guide the evolution. If you're evolving in the “wrong” direction—the way a kid, for example, might evolve to become a drug dealer instead of an honest entrepreneur because the first steps are easier—then it's management's job to say, “Wait, this doesn't meet our goals.”
Q: What about change on the personal level—advancing careers and personal growth? Does your advice translate here?
SG: Big time! If you're a zoomer at a no-zoom company, maybe you should leave. If your personal [behavioral] DNA—your skills and experiences—isn't improving every day, it's because you're interacting with the wrong people. Fix that or watch your career stagnate!
Every time you're at work, you're sharing the gene pool with those workers—they're either boosting you up or pushing you down the evolutionary trend. Are you getting paid enough to delay your personal progress? Think about it. PM
PM NETWORK | AUGUST 2002 | www.pmi.org