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Last Word
John Guaspari

Solving the Mystery of Change

The problem isn't "Next Big Things"; it's "Next Big Thing-ism."

The following is an excerpt from John Guaspari's new book, The Value Effect: A Murder Mystery about the Compulsive Pursuit of "The Next Big Thing" (Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.). It's adapted from an interoffice memorandum written by one of the book's characters (a management consultant) to another (his boss).

How does a Next Big Thing emerge? I think it goes something like this: An issue arises in an organization. People have to deal with it. If enough different organizations have the same (or at least a similar) issue, this begins to constitute a market for consulting services. Consultants being consultants, they will "write it up" for a magazine or a journal. Maybe even a book. More people hear about this hot new approach. They try it out. Get on board.

 When enough people have enough success in applying the hot new approach to dealing with the issue, a critical point is reached: the point at which the fact that a lot of people are applying an approach becomes reason enough for others to apply it.

 And under such circumstances, "going along with the crowd" isn't just defensible; it's essential. That's because business success turns on the ability to attain relative advantage. It's not so much that you need to reach some sort of absolute level of perfection; it's that you need to be "better than the other guys." And in a world of relative advantage, if the competition is getting an edge by applying some "hot new approach," you have to close the gap by applying the hot new approach, too.

 An approach becomes a certifiable "Next Big Thing"--an NBT--when the fact of some people applying it becomes a necessary and sufficient reason for others to do so as well. A second wave of consultants comes onto the scene to satisfy the demand for NBT services. More articles appear. More papers. More books. Whole new conferences are given over to this next Next Big Thing. Still more people get on board. Another wave of consultants. Still more papers and books.

 And so it goes, until we get to what is at the real crux of the matter. The very same thing that makes a Next Big Thing so essential for an organization to apply will eventually cause it to disappoint many (most?) of the organizations that apply it. Why? Because in a world of relative advantage, if everybody is doing something, then that something can't provide a relative advantage. Some organizations--the early adopters, the ones consultants write about--get an edge from the NBT. For most of the others, though, the reality doesn't live up to the rhetoric.

 And it gets worse. Organizations are not made up of automatons. They comprise flesh-and-blood creatures with moods and emotions and all the rest. So when an NBT falls short of its promise--"But I thought this was supposed to be the answer?!"--people get disappointed. And then another NBT comes along, and a lot of people get disappointed again. And as these people make more passes through more cycles of Next Big Things--as they engage in what might be thought of as "Next Big Thing-ism"--that disappointment gives over to frustration, which eventually decays into the kind of cynicism embodied in references to "the program du jour" and "the flavor of the month," or in the world-weary advice given to the naively enthusiastic: "Don't worry. This too shall pass."

 And since cynicism sucks energy out of an organization, later NBTs are even less likely to be effective, which breeds still more cynicism, still more frantic attempts to find the next Next Big Thing, and this cycle of NBT-ism--an especially vicious, pernicious cycle--continues.

 Over the years, Next Big Things--total quality, empowerment, reengineering, customer focus, and all the rest--have gotten a bad rap. Properly understood and applied, Next Big Things work just fine; that's how they get to be Next Big Things. More often than not, the failure of an NBT is less a matter of its failure to do what it was designed to do and more a matter of its failure to live up to ludicrously unrealistic expectations. A lot of the criticism is less a matter of clear-eyed business analysis and more one of petulance at a world that is not sufficiently participating in our pipe dreams. (You might want me to win the Kentucky Derby, and you might expect me to win the Kentucky Derby, but that doesn't make me Secretariat.)

 Of course, I also probably ought to acknowledge the possibility that we in the consulting trades might have had something to do with expectations getting a tad out of whack. ("What?! A consulting company might have oversold its capabilities? I'm shocked--shocked!")

 But it's too easy to blame clients for being unrealistic and consultants for being overly, well, "enthusiastic." I think the world is a more complicated place than that. I think most clients are doing their best at trying to sort through difficult jobs, and most consultants are doing their best at trying to help clients sort through them.

 What's keeping change efforts from being successful isn't a shortage of tools and techniques. There are plenty of NBTs around today, and they are good, useful things. Others will emerge as they are needed. That, too, is good, but it's not enough. I think two more things are needed: a context within which to frame the application of NBTs and the energy to sustain them. So if we can find something that can provide an energizing, enduring context for change, we just might have discovered the antidote to Next Big Thing-ism.


About the author

 John Guaspari is co-founder of Guaspari & Salz Inc. (www.guaspari-salz.com), a Concord, Massachusetts-based management consulting firm. E-mail him at jguaspari@qualitydigest.com .

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