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  • Nick Smith

P is for Persistence


Friedrich Nietzsche is not my 'go-to person' for much, but sometimes he nails it. In Beyond Good and Evil he says 'The essential thing ... is that there should be long obedience in the same direction'. From this, he says, 'there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living'. 'Long obedience in the same direction' - persisting, determinedly seeing something through - I like that.


Perhaps counter-intuitively, I'm convinced, too, that 'long obedience in the same direction' can be important for change. How come? Isn't repeating something while hoping for different results (= change) a recipe for failure? Not always. Here's an example from a client I worked with many years ago. The organisation, when I first worked there, saw lots of change - its leader changed his top team frequently and there was a constant flow of new strategies and initiatives, few of which completed and delivered. After a few years, a new leader was appointed. At the end of his first 100 days, he announced a three-strand strategy. 90 days later, and every ninety days later for the next two-plus years, he restated the same strategy. He sustained a very stable top team through this period too. What difference did his lack of change - his 'long obedience in the same direction' - make? It seems to me that the repeated changes and succession of new initiatives under the first leader just taught the organisation that they didn't have to execute on any particular strategy because a new one would be along soon. In fact, the organisation's ability to execute atrophied. Under the new leader, people realised that strategies weren't going to go away - that execution of them wasn't optional - and teams re-learned, over time, to execute. It changed, precisely because of persistence, because some things didn't change.

We don't all get to be leaders with the power to determine and persist with corporate strategy, so what might persistence, 'long obedience in the same direction', mean for us as change leaders and practitioners? Here's three thoughts for starters:

  • Maybe we might keep in mind something that really is obvious, but that for a variety of reasons is often lost: that effecting embedded and sustained change, especially mindset and cultural change, usually takes time and persistence. While we may sometimes have little choice, would we do better to fight for realistic timescales in which to change ways of working? Rapidly introducing new technology or processes is one thing - embedding their use, leveraging the opportunities they offer, and realising potential benefits is quite another.

  • Like that second leader, sustain the same clear vision - core messages about the need for change change and where we're going. Over time, some of how we get there may change, but not the rationale for change, nor the destination. If we allow these to change, even for the best of reasons, we invite those impacted by proposed change to question how real the need for it is , and whether any stated destination is worth pursuing if it's not going to stick.

  • Assuming we've got a proven approach - one that engages, envisions and equips people to embrace and embed change - let's make sure we persist with it. If under pressure we start cutting corners, or let curiosity or the pursuit of novelty lead us into chopping and changing our method - then we've only got ourselves to blame if those for whom we're looking to facilitate change become wary, perhaps resistant, about the sought change.

So - 'a long obedience in the same direction': are you persuaded? Or am I just building a case that we as change practitioners can get away with being the last to change?



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