There's little I like better than a pithy quote. Usually it has meanings at several different levels, and grasping those meanings shines a new light on the way we think. Many authors have contributed to the one liners we use every day, but I've been thinking about one in particular lately, since it relates to how we change.
In "The Sun Also Rises" Hemingway has a character answer the question "How did you go bankrupt?" with the response "Gradually, then suddenly". Now, that's a great line, but underneath that great line is a grain of truth for those of us interested in change. Most change happens gradually then suddenly.
Why? As I noted in a previous post, Violating the laws of nature, when we change anything we are usually acting within Newton's laws of physics. Bodies (or organizations) at rest tend to stay at rest. When we act on them, they push back with an equal and opposite force. The force we have to apply is equal to the mass (size) of the organization and the acceleration we want. All of this says that it's hard to start the change initially, but with a constant application of force and pressure, we can begin to move the idea through the organization.
Then, stealing a march from another book and idea, we reach a Tipping Point. This is the point where the idea becomes relevant or interesting to enough people that they begin to come on board more readily. This usually happens after all the early adopters and enthusiasts have climbed on board. Once a Tipping Point occurs, then the change is much easier because you spend less time convincing people of the idea, since they can see who has already adopted the idea.
A great way to see this in action is to look at S-curves. Many scientists have noticed that adoption of a technology or infection of a group of people by a communicable disease follows an S-curve. In fact, if you track the adoption rate over time of most consumer electronics, almost all of them follow an S-curve, with the "S" stretching over decades for telephone and radio, and becoming skinnier for CDs or digital cameras.
What's this got to do with us? Simple. Change happens in three dimensions.
First, what I call the Lone Ranger phase. This is where a small group of evangelists get on board and begin to convince others. Change is adopted slowly but steadily.
Second, the discontinuity or the Tipping point, where change accelerates because enough enthusiasts and late adopters jump aboard.
Third, the gradual slowing as all of the possible adopters jump aboard, other than the curmudgeons who never change. Once you reach this point, the change is as fully adopted as possible. Start looking for something new to change.
Where are you in the changes you are trying to implement in your firm?