The Power of Long-Term Change

Over the last month I’ve read a couple books: Made to Stick and The Tipping Point. Both books essentially discuss why some ideas spread (like an epidemic) and why others do not. The underlying theme in both books is change – why change happens quickly and why it sometimes does not. This morning I read a post by Seth Godin on the power of slow change. An interesting perspective given that we live in a society that’s often dictated by short-sighted thinking. Our time horizons have shortened dramatically: politicians driven by the next election are always campaigning; organizations pressed by their next quarterly earnings are constantly selling; and the media motivated by ratings is constantly entertaining.      

As the authors of Made to Stick note, change that’s unexpected usually alters the way things get done. But this is rare. Not all lasting change is driven on this time scale. Issues like the environment, for example, work on a much different timeline. Our environmental problems can be solved but require decades to see the solutions or even progress. The same can be said about issues like immigration, education, and diversity. Many organizations or institutions are unable to grasp the idea of addressing these challenges simply because they’re not able to function within a different time scale.

What time has shown us is that many of these challenges are solvable. Today, organizations that took the long-term view of diversity, for example, are reaping the rewards of the multi-cultural workforce needed to function in a globalized economy. Other organizations are trying to accomplish this on the short-term time scale – an approach that’s fast but not very deep. Diversity teaches patience.         

Patience is a vital characteristic of a progressive organization. It’s advantageous and smart for an organization to function at different time scales at the same time. Technology and business can change rapidly – they must. Culture and demographics change at a much different pace – as they do. Because most organizations focus on change that happens quickly, they overlook the long-lasting benefits of profound measured change. Much like glaciers that take centuries to sheer off the side of mountain, slow deep change can leave behind a landscape that’s beautiful to look at and very hard to alter.