When I was kid I had an aquarium in my bedroom that housed dozens, make that hundreds of guppies and neon tetras. They seemed to multiply almost daily and I was quite proud of them. While I enjoyed watching the pretty little fish, I did not enjoy cleaning the aquarium (much to my mother’s chagrin).

The stink got so bad one day that my mom took it upon herself to clean it for me. Her cleaning agent was Clorox bleach, which did a great job eliminating the bad smell. Unfortunately, after the cleaning I had a mass die-off of the guppies and tetras. In a week or so I was left with 5 mutant guppies. As near as I could tell they were all blind, scarred, and unable to reproduce—they also swam kind of funny.

Needless to say, my mother felt horrible. As for me, I learned a lesson from my negligence and the importance of acting now rather than later. The truth is that I am still haunted by the image of the 5 mutant guppies swimming awkwardly in the tank by my bedside. Poor little guys.

Companies can also be negligent and slow to change. Change is hard and companies will often wait until they have to change. Then they are left with little choice but to react very aggressively. Sometimes management will overreact with over-zealous layoffs or they will layoff the wrong people.

With sales declining and profits gone, firms will often call for a “new strategy”, which is business-speak for “make changes now”. While the changes may be needed, the timing is poor. The best time to change a strategy is when things are working, not when things are falling apart.

For example, General Electric takes pride in continuously changing the firm’s strategy. A key to the firm’s success is a constant review and revision of people, practices, and products. While the GE culture can be criticized for being a bit bombastic, it is hard to argue about their resilience. Former GE CEO Jack Welch had a mantra that still resonates in the hallways, “Change before you have to”.

Like the dirty aquarium, firms need to routinely clean house and review strategy. If not, you may end up with a bunch mutant employees scarred by the management’s swinging ax and desperate reinvention.

John Bradley Jackson
© Copyright 2008 All rights reserved.

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