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Better understanding the speed of change

People have been talking about the shocking speed of change for at least 50 years. In fact, Alvin Toffler wrote a best-seller about change, Future Shock, back in 1970. We are talking about it even more now in light of the changes forced upon us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps after fifty years, we need a more nuanced way of talking about change, there is no longer any value left in simply saying that change is faster than ever.


Change isn’t always fast

The first point to recognize is that change is not universal. Dr. Henry Mintzberg, the author of Rebalancing Society, likes to point out that buttons were invented in the 13th century and they’ve hardly changed at all. Closer to home we know technology is changing rapidly and yet it may well take us five years just to fully implement a new HRIS. We know that in business everything takes longer than we imagine it should. Hofstadter's Law is amusing but true, it states that things always take longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law—so much for the rapid pace of change.

Mapping different rates of change

One approach to reconciling the seemly rapid pace of change with the sometimes slow pace of change is articulated by The Long Now Foundation. They describe change in terms of “Pace Layers”. That’s a confusing term until you recognize that they mean “Pace of change” layers. The model explicitly points out that different things in our world change at different rates.

In his book The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand lists the following layers from fast to slow:

  • Fashion (very fast)

  • Commerce

  • Infrastructure

  • Governance

  • Culture

  • Nature (very slow)

By writing down the layers (usually in a diagram) it reminds us that, yes, something things do change very quickly (e.g. computer technology) and some things change very slowly (e.g. buttons). If you are thinking about things that happen in your organization, you don’t have to use the list of layers Stewart Brand describes. It can be a useful exercise to think of what moves quickly and what moves slowly in your own organization.

Friction between the layers

Another insight from Brand is that there is friction where the layers meet. Thinking back to the HRIS example, the technology changes fairly fast but implementation is slow and user adoption slower still. The different paces of change create tension and anxiety, especially when we expect the slower pace layers to keep up with the fast ones. We mustn’t think that just because technology itself changes quickly that we can expect user behaviour or governance rules to change at the same pace.

We deal with change all the time as managers and so we should have a sophisticated understanding of change. The concept of pace layers helps elevate our understating of the dynamics of change.


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