Having the courage to change is not an option. It's a matter of survival!

Business is tough these days and a firm has to be flexible to be successful. Most aren't. Why not? Because "we've always done it that way" is alive and well.

Ma Bell is still focused on selling ground lines when her real competition is selling cellular and taking over the market. Even today, "telephone" to Ma Bell means a black phone with a dial and wires leading to a central switch. But customers want a flip phone and they don't care who they get it from or who provides the satellite link.

Plumbers-to-be still go through an apprenticeship that teaches them how to thread iron pipe, while PVC has taken over the industry. Builders want fast, cheap plumbing, but plumbers have had to know how to thread pipe forever and they'd better know it today, even if there's no pipe to thread.

Why is this? Because it's tough to forget what once was successful-even though it isn't now and maybe won't be ever again. Even if a firm sets out on a new path, that new path is going to look a lot like the old one. Telephones are really black and have dials, and plumbers have to know how to thread pipe, even though those things aren't true by definition.

It's a lot easier to make dramatic changes at the conglomerate level. Jack Welch could have made a new GE from scratch if he had wanted to, just by selling off what didn't work the way he wanted and buying something that did. That's OK for Jack because he had no emotional attachment to the business at the product and process level. It's a lot tougher for the guy who sweats over the details and has his heart in the business at hand.

So is it possible for a firm to change what it does or how it does it? Of course! It's difficult, but here's how to start.

Listen to your customers, not to yourself. Think more like Jack and less like the guy with an emotional attachment to the product or process. What does the firm offer its customers beyond the details? The advantage Welch had was dispassion for the details. The firm must get beyond its history, tradition and company lore, and focus on how to best serve customers. That means determining rationally what customers want and how they want it-and then delivering it!

Get committed to change, like it or not. The firm has to change, like it or not, and it takes more than lip service! People are comfortable with the status quo, even when the ship is sinking, and change can be uncomfortable even if it means survival. There's perceived security in doing what you've always done even if there isn't! It takes a lot of courage to change, even if maintaining the status quo means the end of the firm or a career. Having the courage to change is not an option.

Get someone from outside to help change you. Bringing in an outsider who doesn't know the history of the firm might be the best answer, but it will take a very tough outsider if your firm is the same breed as some I've worked with. And maybe it will mean the second person you bring in will be successful after you've thrown the first one out!

Telephones are never going to be black again and iron pipe is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Firms have to change with the times or become extinct, like it or not, and difficult as it may be. It's a matter of survival!