Barriers to Change: Cannibalism

It’s hard to introduce change when an organization is doing well—but if you don't, you risk disruption from competitors

You know you need to make a change. The industry is shifting, and it’s only a matter of time before competitors start making a serious dent in your profits. There’s just one problem: right now, you’re doing well. And in fact, any changes you do make now will arguably make outcomes worse. While teams are experimenting with new ways of working, it’s going to take time and energy and focus away from existing work. But if you don’t make changes now—if you keep doing what you’re doing—eventually your competitors will catch up and outpace you.

It’s hard to justify a potentially risky new way of doing things as opposed to a tried-and-true method that works.

This is a variation on cannibalism. And while most leaders are familiar with it in the form of product cannibalism—introducing a new product tends into existing market share—the concept is just as relevant when trying to introduce changes to how you operate. It happens because just like introducing a new product, it’s hard to justify a potentially risky new way of doing things as opposed to a tried-and-true method that works. Organizations are inherently set up to produce mass at scale, so change goes against its very nature.

What to do about it:

  • Realize it’s better to disrupt yourself. The cold hard fact is that change is going to happen one way or another. Your competitor will be making changes to outcompete you, so it’s better if you outcompete yourself. Furthermore, it can be a competitive strategy, fending off others by showing how committed you are to dominating the market.
  • Assess whether you’re making enough of a leap. Do a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether it makes more sense to make an even bigger disruption. While NOBL is general fans of incremental, rather than radical change, there are certain occasions that do call for a bigger, more punctuated change. Explore to determine what will make a disruption worthwhile. 
  • Get fast feedback from early adopters. As with any change, get feedback so you can adapt as quickly as possible. 
  • Reduce internal political resistance. Leaders of successful existing process are rightly proud of their contributions to the organization, so don’t be surprised if they’re aggravated by attempts to reduce their impact. Instead, find ways to have them share in the success of new operations. 
  • Comms planning. Make sure everyone on the team understands why you’re making the transition, and what trade-offs are entailed, so they’re not left questioning your judgment.
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Barriers to Change: Cannibalism
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