The Business Transition Blog

COMPLACENCY – THE KILLER OF NECESSARY CHANGE

Almost everyone was caught off guard by the economic storm of 2008. While there were red flags that are obvious now with 20-20 hindsight, even some economists were still predicting growth just a few months before the maelstrom. Some people were prescient, wary enough to pull out of their stock investments sooner and avoided major losses. Most were not.
Imagine some of the meetings that must have taken place before this big economic crash. It’s June, 2008 and a meeting has been called in the boardroom. Large, ornately framed portraits of the founding fathers adorn the dark walls. The room smells of money. Old money. Permanence. Success. It’s a well established, profitable company.

Today’s meeting has been called by a nervous vice-president. Conversation between the sales manager, comptroller, operations manager, and manufacturing manager is percolating around the coffee pot. “I’m concerned about the trends I’m seeing in some of your reports”, opens the VP.
“We’re down a bit from last year, but I’m not too worried,” the sales manager responds. “My people tell me they have a lot of orders waiting to close in the fall. You know it always slows down a bit in the summer.”
“I’m not concerned at this point either,” echoes the manufacturing manager. “I’ve spoken to our suppliers and they’re seeing a slight dip but I know one of them just invested half a million in new equipment and is planning to increase hiring in the next couple of months.”
“I hear you,” muses the comptroller, looking thoughtful and slightly guarded. “I’ve heard some buzz in our association meetings, but the general feeling is cautious optimism.”
“I just hope it gets a little easier for us to hire people,” complains the operations manager. “If I could hire twenty good engineers, I’d do it right now. In fact, I’m interviewing three this afternoon that look pretty good.”
The VP listened, but wasn’t convinced. The evidence of a pending calamity was not yet clear but her intuition told her something didn’t add up. She had a choice to make. She would have had no idea that her decision to push or not to push her concern forward would have such an immediate and profound impact on her business.

I’m sure this scenario played out in a similar fashion in thousands of businesses around the world. If someone raised concerns about where the economy and therefore the business was going, someone else was equally prepared to smile, pacify him or her, and negate the concern for a need to change. Complacency may well have been the biggest weakness facing businesspeople as they blindly stumbled into the toughest economy since the 1930s.
Complacency and inertia lead to a lack of urgency. Our behavior continues as before unless something interrupts the pattern. Sometimes we all need a wakeup call. Otherwise, committees continue to hold endless meetings without outcomes or expectations. Administrators continue to work on meaningless reports. Even when we look at the facts and wonder if a change is required, our natural tendency will be to overlook clues that may be obvious to an objective outsider. In Joel Barker’s research into paradigms, he learned that we see what we expect to see and will tend to deny or even be physically blind to the evidence to the contrary.

But if we are certain that predictable events will occur, we can prepare for them. The better prepared we are, the better equipped we are to face whatever challenges exist – many of which are, in reality, predictable.
• You will get older.
• You will at some point become less capable of running your business.
• You will one day sell your business – on purpose, or by default.

It’s peculiar that well-intentioned, intelligent, successful individuals can be caught off guard by the simple and inevitable reality of change. Yet many entrepreneurs resemble deer in the headlights when they consider their retirement. They procrastinate, deny the inevitable, and suppress reality rather than prepare for the change that is coming.

It’s difficult to accept our own mortality. But if we don’t, our family will have to.
John Kotter said “Never underestimate the magnitude of the forces that reinforce complacency and that help maintain the status quo.”