• Wendy Castleman

Falling Off A Cliff: When to let change happen

I’ve been thinking about waterfalls lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the flow of water as an analogy to personal and organizational life.  Water is usually moving downhill, following the easy, available path. There are times when the water appears still but is actively flowing. There are times when the water is still and unmoving, when it can stagnate and toxic.  There are times when water is tumbling chaotically as rapids. And, there are waterfalls. With a waterfall, you often have that still looking water that’s fast moving as it approaches a cliff, then the frenzied fall itself, landing with a huge splash and chaos, and finally calm. Often times, a waterfall ends in a lovely pond with a river running away from it gently.

If you are working within an organization, you can usually identify times that correspond to various states of water, including the waterfall.  A waterfall moment is a transformative change. There are times when you might want to intentionally cause that waterfall moment, such as the design thinking initiative that I was a part of at Intuit, and there are times when you may not want to go over the waterfall, but it’s happening anyway.

Change is inevitable, and the pace of change is accelerating.  It is also something that we naturally resist because it is unknown...different. But just as you can block the path of water for a bit, it will find its way downhill in the end.

With waterfalls, there is a cliff or hill that the water will fall off of. The cliff is outside of the water itself, but it is essential for the water to race at its fastest pace.  When the water approaches the cliff, there is often a pond or pooling just in front of the cliff. This is analogous to how we might slow down and resist when we see an inevitable change coming.  

For example, when mobile phones really hit an inflection point around late 2007, I was working at Intuit.  Many people at the time had blackberry phones and a few cool people had iPhones. Many people did not have mobile phones. People used them for work, so they wanted work to buy them.  Blackberry was the preferred solution, and it required an IT integration that made it a fairly high cost - both financially and with manpower. The company did some back-of-the-napkin calculations and realized that it would be ridiculously expensive to provide all employees with mobile phones.  In classic corporate style, they decided initially that they should not provide them, and should not support the use of them. However, because the mobile revolution was coming (we knew it was there, but had no idea how big a transformation it was going to be on how we worked), we did do some further investigation. In a design-thinking workshop, we had executives interview ‘extreme users’ (people who were early adopters in using mobile in their daily work).  They discovered that having the mobile phone allowed them to work at times when they would not have traditionally worked. It allowed them to monitor IT systems, respond to emails and other activities in the evenings, when at their child’s school functions, and while traveling. By having a mobile phone, employees were more productive. They also felt that if Intuit took away their phones or refused to support them, they might have to leave to find a more supportive work environment.  WOW. That was pretty mind-boggling and helped shift the conversation from “should we change” to “how do we handle this change”. Coming out of that workshop, the new policy would allow people to get an iPhone (which didn’t have the expensive IT integration) - and shortly after the introduction of Andriod, an Android phone. It was less than a year before Intuit was “mobile first” and began to create mobile apps as products.  

Just as water pools before a waterfall, we slowed down before falling off the mobile phone cliff.  If you notice yourself or your organization holding back and avoiding change, it may be that you are approaching a waterfall moment.

I’m in another one of those pooling moments right now in my life.  I feel myself resisting a change.  Just like I might be able to hear a waterfall ahead, but not know how big it is… I might not always know what the change is that’s coming.  So, how can I prepare for it? Well, I really can’t avoid it, but I can brace myself for the change and get mentally ready for it to come.

Once you start over the top of the waterfall, you just need to hold on tight.

One of the best ways to brace yourself and survive a change is to be really clear on who you are and what your enduring qualities and values are.  The same is true for an organization.

Let's look at the company Lego, and the incredible turn around they made in the mid 2000s. They were tumbling over a waterfall in the era of online gaming (instant gratification) and big-box toy companies who had driven down the price of traditional lego offerings. They responded by trying to expand beyond their traditional offerings into clothing, television, and more internet gaming. Their offerings became more and more complex and the organization's complexity expanded too. These efforts did not work well and the company was losing money and began downsizing. But, they then took a little time to dive more deeply into their target customer (kids, and their parents) and remember who they were at their core. They focused on their core quality of learning and on reconnecting people with their love of the lego toys. They focused on improving the quality of the building toys and simplifying the options. They focused on creating community interactions with people who loved legos. They found ways to empower people to create and share their lego creations. They created experiences that allowed people to play with legos. They focused, in other words, on being LEGO. Because of this, they are now in a still pool at the bottom of the waterfall... things are quiet for a moment and they know how to respond to the next waterfall... by being true to themselves.

As you feel yourself resisting when you see a change coming and anticipate a fall, take time to re-anchor everyone in your values and purpose. Back to the basics.  Because water that is falling in a waterfall is still … water.

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