There is no money in change management
I really enjoyed the interviews with senior staff at The Advisory Board Company back in 2006. I think they decided to hire me after I said that “the early bird gets the worm, but only the second mouse gets the cheese”. Before that, I think they knew that I knew about IT and healthcare, but they worried that I was evangelical the use of IT in healthcare, and that I would not help hospital CXOs make the correct business decision.
I thought of this quote many times while reading Authoritas by Aaron Greenspan. I bought the book because I had heard that Mark Zuckerberg had stolen the Facebook from Aaron while they were both studying at Harvard. He did, and it is a juicy story, even though it only takes up the final fifth of the book. The price of the book was worth it just to understand how frivolous Mark is, and to read that he rejected Aaron’s full-featured site because it was “too useful”.
But if you are a change agent, please buy this book. It shows you why there is no money in change management.
Aaron does not seem to have any cunning or guile in him. He seems to be a really nice guy, just trying to do the right thing. I feel safe in saying this because he includes so many conversations that make him look really stupid. I have done many stupid things in my life, but like most people, I hide them from myself and from other people. Aaron just writes down, in detail, what he remembers happening.
This kind of writing is what I call the “dark matter” of research material. Most accounts of change management are by or about people who succeeded in bringing about change, and whom society has recognised and rewarded for these changes. But society fails to recognise most people who try to improve, and instead these unreasonable people are crushed and never get to write their story, much less have it read. We should be grateful that these people exist, irrational on their insistence for a better way, and irrational in their persistence against society’s irrational rejections.
The transcripts of Aaron’s arguments with Harvard’s faculty are priceless, and the discussions between Dean Jay Ellison are fascinating illustrations of The Social Life of Software‘s descriptions of how restrictive digital communication is. I should add that Aaron hates Jay, but I thought Jay was the most reasonable of the Harvard bunch, and that he was genuinely trying to be helpful, but that they spoke in different tongues. Aaron’s accounts reminded me so many times of transcripts of conversations in books by Deborah Tannen and John Gray. Except the conversations do not illustrate arbitrary differences between how women and men talk to each other, but how change agents talk and stupid people respond.
There, I said it. I think the people Aaron tried to help were stupid for what they did to him. But then again, it was stupid of Aaron to continue trying to help them. This book is not so much a description of Mark stealing from Aaron, as much as documenting how Aaron keeps on being the first mouse that has his neck snapped by the mousetrap while the other mice grab the cheese.
What is interesting to me is that Aaron admires Bill Gates, or Sir Bill, as the Queen calls him. Bill Gates was never a change agent, and is the richer for it. That is why Microsoft continued with DOS for so long, even though it was the first and largest company to develop software for the Macintosh. They fully understood the superiority of graphical user interface, but most people (“business buyers”) were too stupid to understand, so Microsoft continued to sell them what they wanted to buy. DOS. Microsoft and Bill Gates only try to make change after they have enough monopoly power and people have to obey them. And even then, even the mighty Microsoft can be stung, as the Vista debacle shows.
So what is the lesson? It would be a shame to deprive society from the benefits of change, so I hope that reading the book does not dissuade anyone from trying to make change happen. But you really should read the book to understand what can happen to you, and to at least figure out when to quit and protect yourself. Aaron, I salute your courage, and hope only that you can continue your efforts long after the world has moved on from Facebook.