The Elastic Limit - Why Change Doesn't Stick

Take a thin steel rod. I'm sure you have one handy. Clamp one end in a vice (which you also have handy...I know I do) so that it's sticking straight up in the air. Now move the free end of the rod to the side a little and let it go. What happened? Did it spring right back? OK, now move it a little further. Still springing back? If you keep going, moving it a little further each time, you will find a point where the rod no longer springs back but bends permanently. Materials scientists call this the elastic limit. Below this limit, materials experience elastic deformation - they spring back to the way they were before once the force is removed. Above this limit, they experience what is called plastic deformation - they no longer spring back but permanently change shape.

So why am I giving you this lecture in materials science? Because organisations behave the same way. When you apply a force to them - when you change something - the organisation is very good at snapping straight back to the way it was before.  As soon as you stop pushing the change, the change disappears. We've all seen it happen. As soon as you relax, the change evaporates and within a short time the organisation is happily doing what it has always done.

It is very hard to make change stick, particularly in large organisations. I would argue that the reason we are seeing this is that we are being too gentle with them. We aren't pushing hard enough and they are staying comfortably within their elastic limit. As soon as the force is removed, they snap back to the way they were before. 

For people pushing a radical change agenda, we tend to be very gentle with organisations. We adopt familiar looking frameworks like SAFe. We try to fit in with existing organisational structures. We don't challenge the thinking patterns of senior leaders. We make sure change is reversible. We introduce change slowly and gently.

Naturally, we do all of this for a reason. The more radical the change, the less likely it is that the organisation will adopt it. If we push too hard, they will reject the change (and us). Given that we like to be employed, we don't drive as hard as we would often like to. We also tend to feel that a little bit of change is better than none at all, so small, incremental change will get us there eventually. After all, kaizen (continuous small change) is the Toyota way. The problem is that the company you work for probably isn't Toyota.

In materials science, the more often you move a material beyond its elastic limit - the more times you permanently change it - the lower the elastic limit gets. The more you deform a material, the easier it becomes to deform it (we will leave out a detailed discussion of work hardening and stress fracturing and assume the simple case). Same with organisations. The more you change them, the more they get used to change and the easier they are to change. Toyota has spent decades continually changing itself, so it now has a very, very low elastic limit. It is so used to change that any small change will stick.

Your company is not like that. If it was, you wouldn't be reading articles like this. Your company is resistant to change. It has a very high elastic limit. Kaizen will not work. As soon as you remove the pressure, the organisation just snaps back and your change is lost.

Small change does not stick in a large, change-resistant organisation. What we need to do with organisations like that is apply a larger change. One that takes the organisation beyond its elastic limit. One that creates permanent change. Once we have that change done, the elastic limit will drop and we can apply smaller and smaller changes until we reach the point where kaizen will start to work. The problem of course is that large change like that is scary. It also can't be done from the bottom up which is where we tend to operate most of the time. It will take a lot of buy in from some very senior people to make it work. They will really need to trust you. You might need to do some small, elastic changes to build up trust before giving the organisation a big whack with the change hammer.

The other problem with big changes is that it can break things. Go back to that steel rod you had in the vice. Now give it a really big whack, really fast, with a big hammer. What happened? Did it bend cleanly or did it suddenly snap off at the base? Yep. Go get a band-aid. And another rod. Now take the new rod and apply the same amount of force but slowly this time. Did it bend nicely? Change is the same. You need something big to cause a permanent change but apply that change too fast and the organisation can break. You need to apply constant pressure over a significant amount of time to drive the large change without breaking things.

If it all sounds really hard that's because it is. Organisational change that sticks is really hard to achieve. There are some things you can do to make it easier though. For a start, don't try to do the whole organisation at once. That's just too big. The elastic limit is so high that any change you make requires so much force the whole thing is likely to break. Pick a smaller, but still significant unit of the business and focus there. It has to be big enough to substantially change the organisation and resist the pressure to snap back but small enough that change is manageable. A single large portfolio or a small business unit is a good choice.

Engage with the leadership. You cannot do this bottom up. You will need significant, direct support from the leadership, both to drive the change and to shield the change from the rest of the organisation.

You need to make that initial change as irreversible as possible. The harder it is for the organisation to revert, the stickier your change will be. If you're instituting a new process, don't run it in parallel with the old one, replace the old one completely. Don't let some areas opt out. It has to be all or nothing this first time.

Ride out the storm. This will cause disruption. Your sponsors in leadership need to be aware of this. They will need to take a hit to their bottom line while things settle down. They absolutely need to go into this with eyes wide open. You cannot hide this from them either before or during the change or you will lose their trust forever.

Prepare the next change. You need to keep the pressure on. Not so much that the organisation breaks but enough that it can't relax back to the old ways.

Oh more thing to note - some materials don't undergo permanent deformation when you push them above their elastic limit. They snap instead. They are called brittle materials. Some organisations are like that as well. They are so brittle that any attempt to create permanent change will end in breakage. If you work for a brittle organisation, your best chance to create change is to work somewhere else.

Organisational change is hard. Change that sticks is even harder. Knowing your organisation's elastic limit and how much force you need to apply to make permanent change will help get you there.