When being an elephant isn’t enough

When companies try to copy others’ successes by only adopting the surface trappings of that success, they end up like an elephant in a circus act.

The elephant is still an elephant. Its desire to be nimble and agile doesn’t give it magical powers to change into a different species. It’s still the same old beast, but it’s trying hard to be something it’s not by doing the least amount of work it possibly can. We call that “imitation.”

Unfortunately, imitation isn’t transformative. It only serves to highlight the vast and glaring gap between aspirations and reality. Without fundamental change, a pachyderm is still a pachyderm no matter how hard it tries to convince the world that it’s suddenly graceful.

In fact, the attempt to change by doing the least amount of change possible becomes a spectacle, a circus act. It calls attention to itself, and not in a good way. That’s entertaining if you’re in the audience, but it sucks if you’re the elephant trying to sell the act.

And at some point the ball bursts. The air escapes not only the plastic ball, but the facade that an organism or entity can transform itself without hard work in a long, slow process. That’s painful, so organizations try to avoid it by doing the least amount of work possible, i.e. imitation.

The key to avoiding this lies at a senior level. Senior leadership has to embrace the difficult truths and long-term planning that are essential for real change. Without it, a culture of quick fixes, superficial tweaks and imitation trickles down. Leaders need to set goals and metrics that support and enable departments to invest in the kind of fundamental changes that can take years. They need backup, support and time. Without that, spin and short-term profit at the expense of long-term growth get used to show “change,” and leave an organization in worse shape than before it began the process.

Change is hard. It takes time and work. So when you’re thinking about change, remember the joke about the psychologist and the light: “How many shrinks does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the bulb has to want to change!”

Don’t try to change if you’re really not committed to it.

Photo credit:: https://www.flickr.com/photos/visionshare/

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