Two of my favorite things to do these days is reading the books of Nassim Taleb and watching some old episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares”. Though it doesn’t seem intuitive, these two things actually have something in common. They give you great insights about change and are fun to watch/read. One thing in particular chains those two together and I’m not talking about their straight forward language. It’s the Lindy Effect and its impact on change.
What is the “Lindy Effect”?
The Lindy Effect is described by Nassim Taleb as such: “The robustness of an item is proportional to its life time”. Meaning that, if a book is in print for over a decade, it can be expected that it will be in print for another decade. If it is in print for a century, it is expected to survive another century, and so on. There goes the bad news for students, who hate reading classic books in school. Sorry, but it is expected that this will stay so for a long time. The Lindy Effect was named after a famous deli and restaurant called “Lindy’s” on Broadway, where famous Broadway artists would hang out in between shows and talk about which show was getting cut next. The rule of thumb was the same: If a play would be there for a year, it would be there for another year at best. But, if it had been there for the last decade, chances were good that it would be there in the next decade. Because of that you really needn’t hurry to watch the Phantom of the Opera because the chances are high that it will still be on over the next 30 years.
Okay, I get it, but what does that have to do with the agile transformation in my company?
I’ll come to that, but first let’s have a look at the general plot of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In nearly every episode, Gordon will come to a restaurant which is on the brink of extinction. He will first try the food that is available in the restaurant, then he will rant about it while the owner is absolutely surprised of that. He is in denial because he thinks he serves the best food for miles. After accepting the fact that this isn’t the case, the turnaround of the restaurant will begin, led by Gordon Ramsay and his typical actions like getting the owner (most common not a trained cook) out of the kitchen, minimizing the menu, using fresh food instead of canned or frozen, etc. At the end of nearly every episode the usually “hard to get convinced” owner will promise that he will keep up the changes that Gordon has initiated to turn the fate of the restaurant around. What a great and happy end that would be.
Unfortunately, only 22 % out of over 100 restaurants Gordon has visited over the years are still in business. The rest were closed, more or less only months after Gordon visited them. This could indicate two things: a) the world-renowned three-star Michelin chef who either owned or operated over 25 restaurants has no clue of operating a restaurant and is therefore not giving sustainable tips, or b) the owners simply don’t get it and fall back on their bad behaviors as soon as Gordon turns his back on the restaurant.
I highly doubt the former, but the latter would be a bona fide example of the Lindy effect on human behavior and habits. And for the sake of the argument I’m going with that one.
So, let’s talk about agile transformations of companies
A well-functioning agile transformation of a big company has some simple ingredients. Get some impulses into the company, such as that there is a better way of navigating your company through the VUCA-world of today and that it really is time to implement different modi operandi into your organization. Not because the way you operated your company in the past was wrong, but because it could be simply outdated and it would therefore be a mistake to hold on to in the years to come. Build a vision and navigate your company in a promising direction by using the full potential of your employees and your management. This means enabling people in your organization and bringing in a new perspective to challenge their beliefs. For example, you want to reflect on whether hierarchical leadership is still the best way to operate in your environment. Maybe there are alternatives to optimizing only your own work (silo mentality); perhaps thinking in terms of the whole organization and so on.
Offer help and guidance to counter the of Lindy Effect
Changing anything, especially systems or personalities, is a complex endeavor that will consume a lot of your energy. Having support can be helpful to stick with the change effort and have guidance through unknown terrain until you reach stability again on the next plateau. The latter is one of the main reasons, that things go sideways. Because a comfort zone is a rather muddy environment to get out of, people need help to change, if you want it to be sustainable, be it a organizational system or a personality.
With the Lindy effect in action you can expect that the behavior you want to eradicate in your management or employees has a high chance of simply staying there, if you don’t work continually to get it over with. The same goes for systems: the IT-architecture that you have built in the seventies still has a high chance of remaining the nucleus of your IT-infrastructure in the 2050s, because instead of professionally killing it and building a modern one, you will be tempted to fix it even more; think of Clayton Christensens Innovator’s Dilemma. This one tested empirically that a firm will rather focus on improving an established product, especially in the efficiency-driven management mindset of today’s world, than being open to a new one. This is why tech-startup unicorns have such a high vantage point to attack incumbents. They simply don’t have to carry that old baggage.
Better take small steps than no steps at all
This might sound unfair. Well, the good news is, you can do something about it. By continually improving your company every day, you can still reach the turnaround. Reaching only a 1% improvement rate every day, makes you and your company 37 times better in a year. The core of that saying is that a lot of small improvements multiply each other and before you know it, the transformation in your company is just the daily business nobody talks about, because it is ingrained in your company’s DNA. This is where you want to be.
In the beginning such small steps are easier to see by “first movers” or people who are just starting in or coming to your organization. They could be consultants, agile coaches or the people already in your company with just the right “new” mindset. You need those people and skills in your company to implement a fresh mindset, which is suitable for navigating the world of today. On a broader scale, change in general has its best-case scenario when it happens at the top, in the middle and at the basis of your organization simultaneously. Then you’ll have a great stance against the fundamentals of the Lindy effect, because the robustness of your old behaviors and beliefs is tackled by the robustness of the willingness to change. In this case, there is a good chance that change in your company is really inevitable.
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