Big Change vs Little Changes . . .


It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. ~often attributed to Charles Darwin

Whether or not Darwin actually said this, it certainly holds true in the rapidly changing global world of business we find ourselves in today.  Giant businesses just a few decades ago, or less, are no longer in business.  Our children won’t know about the once dominance of Kodak films, Phones and PDAs from Nokia or Motorola or Blackberry, international air travel on PanAm or videos from Blockbuster. Gone and replaced by new technology while they stood still.

It seems that nearly every CEO has “change or die” tattooed on their foreheads. It’s a tough life trying to protect current revenues and profits while at the same time looking over your shoulder for disruptive technologies and “giant killer” start-ups.

In the pressure to pursue change the holy grail of CEOs and change management consulting firms is “Big Change”, making a quantum shift in the business that creates significant competitive advantage. Bam! Pow! Shazam! Done. Transformed in one giant leap.

Big Change

Large-scale transformational change looks sexy on paper, or should I say Powerpoint presentations, and the spreadsheet forecasts are definitely compelling as expected growth and profit margins show a future of double-digit territory.

There are two problems with “Big Change”, one small and one big.

The small problem is that big change events cause leaders, managers and employees to take their eyes off the current business. Meetings increase as new changes are planned and mapped out. Market research and strategy sessions take leaders away from current customer needs. People are working two jobs and doing neither very well. In short order the business performance tends to slow down and competitors gain market share.

The big problem with “Big Change” is that it simply doesn’t work!

Most large-scale change programmes, whether IT transformation, culture change or the execution of a new strategy simply don’t deliver to the degree expected.  A study by Martin Smith tested the common belief that 30% of all change efforts fail.  His research shows very clearly the poor results of large-scale change:

culture change rate

Make Big Change in Small, Continuous Steps 

The fossil record of evolution appears as if evolution happens in big jumps, since all we see are fossils from various time periods.  In actual fact, evolution, let’s say from early fish to land reptiles took many millions of years and was a slow process of genetic variation, environmental changes and survival of those best adapted.  A very slow process.


I’m not suggested we wait millions of years.  I am suggesting that the best path to staying ahead of the competition is to continuously adapt in small steps. All the time.

Leadership and management development should be a continuous process of adding new skills, competencies and capabilities on an ongoing basis.  This year’s management development course should not be the same as last year. This year’s talent selection criteria should not be the same as last year. Products and services should continue to evolve in order to meet the evolving needs and demands of customers. Leadership at the top should change roles in order to gain new perspectives and bring new ideas and learn to understand other parts of the business.

The sad truth is, too many companies keep doing the same thing over and over (maybe with a little cost cutting thrown in) until Big Change is the only option!

Continuous improvement or Big Leap Transformation.  The choice is yours.

John R. Childress

Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture, and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available from Amazon in paperback and eBook formats.

See the review of LEVERAGE in The Economist (January 9, 2014.

John also writes thriller novels:




About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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