Any dieter will gladly tell you about the body’s “set points.” For those of you who have been spared the joys of lifelong dieting, a quick synopsis is that our bodies have a “set point” a body weight or status that it will try to return to, despite behavioral changes. It is basically a “comfort zone” that uses the body’s tendency towards homeostasis to drive itself towards a certain functioning model. Think of it as a rubber band that has been stretched, snapping back into its original shape.
The question is; do businesses have a set point? Is there a “comfort zone” business model that most businesses, despite the outward flurry of change activities or new mission statements, will attempt to return to time and again?
Years ago I worked with a non-profit who had built itself around a key volunteer activity. Long after that activity ceased to return results as it had in the past, it was kept, a “sacred cow” due to the history of the organization. Which is fine if it is a conscious choice, but rather than acknowledge that the time had passed and keep the activity as a “nice to have” rather than a key income driver, endless attempts were made over and over again to revitalize that activity to bring it back to the center of the revenue plan.
Another example is an individual employee. When they first start their employment they may learn a particular task they had not known how to do before. Or they are given the responsibility for a section of the P&L, a marketing activity, or a key account. Ten years later, they will still have a particular bias towards that activity or account. This can be a great thing, where the depth of knowledge around the topic can be beneficial, or a blind spot, when they give undue weight to that item at the expense of the big picture.
For every “we tried that back in 2005” that a change agent gets (complete with the implied “and it didn’t work you imbecile”), it is worth considering that the audience is trying hard to return to a model or activity that is in their set point. No one could possibly sell 200 widgets a day until someone does. The problem is, once someone sells 200 widgets, it puts everyone who can’t sell 200 widgets on notice and possibly, makes them obsolete. This is when you’ll see the accusations of “cheating” or “undue advantage”. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re 100% right. And other times, they’re just headed back for the comfort zone.
Have you noticed a “return to set point” in your attempts at organizational change?
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