Every Grain of Sand

August 5, 2008

Some people believe that change agents – those people able to help an organization shift culturally and change direction strategically – are very rare. Chainsaw Al‘s compensation package at Sunbeam was based on that idea. We know how that turned out.

Lasting change that creates value doesn’t happen that way.

Think of an oyster. If you work like Chainsaw Al, you pick it up and scoop out the contents. Time to implement: immediate and short-term. Value created: one appetizer. Value destroyed: future value of the oyster and anything it might produce.

The grain of sand works differently. It consistently irritates the oyster on just the right level. Too little irritation and nothing happens. Too much, and it’s ejected from the shell. Does that sound like a balance you’ve ever had to achieve in the workplace?

This constant irritation changes everything that happens in the immediate vicinity of the grain of sand. A small zone is created where the rules are different than in the rest of the organization. Time to implement: months (if it’s longer than that, you’re not being irritating enough). Value created: one durable and long-lasting pearl. Value destroyed: none (unless you really liked the old cover sheet for the TPS reports).

A big side benefit: there are few Chainsaw Als, and even fewer Jack Welches. If we use the top-down model for change agents we have to find one, pay a lot, and potentially see value destroyed rather than created. But the pearl model means that potential change agents are as numerous as grains of sand (or cube-dwellers in corporate America).

The hard part is staying honest about whether you’re acting in a manner that creates meaningful change. Cubicles are full of random acts of meaningless rebellion, and even fuller of supposed ‘change agents’ that are hoarding fossils instead of creating pearls.

What small irritation will you create today? Will you be consistent at it so that activity in your vicinity is forever a little different, a little better?

Photo by nigham


One Response to “Every Grain of Sand”

  1. hoovers Says:

    I like this, Russ. It’s too easy to either (a) insist so much on your own way that you pack up your toys and go home or (b) stop trying altogether. Much better is to find the point of creative tension in-between.

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