Changing The Way We Think About Change

The year is still new, and change lingers in the air. It’s natural to resolve to “change” with the New Year – to eat less, to exercise more, to alter routines. But is change always good when it comes to goals? Isn’t it better to sometimes stake out a path and stick to it?

One travel company has done that incredibly successfully. The only consistently profitable airline over the last few decades is Southwest Airlines. And as Morten Hansen, a management professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a recent address to the conference of the Professional Convention Management Association, Southwest Airlines has done very well by not changing.

In a 1978 memo that came to be called Putnam’s List after Howard Putnam, then the new CEO for Southwest, the airline defined its goals/mission statement as:

  • Flights under two hours
  • Use 737’s
  • Quick turnarounds on the runway – 10 minutes
  • People, not mail
  • Low fares, high frequency
  • No food
  • No interlining
  • Family, fun
  • Simple, no seat assignments.



Amazingly, little has changed on that list. Yes, some flights are longer than two hours but otherwise the list holds to a remarkable extent.

And, in fact, Hansen said that successful companies do change – but minimally. In his book about successful companies called Great by Choice (co-authored by Jim Collins), Hansen found that great companies changed their list about 20% over long stretches of time while also-rans changed more. 

“It’s the combination of creation and changes that makes for success,” said Hansen; “the path to mediocrity lies in constant change.”

“Not changing” is easier said than done. It seems like we’re expected to change very day – with every new app, every new technology device, every new trend.

But if a company is going to be around awhile, there have to be some things it stand for – and will continue to stand for indefinitely. There are hotel companies, tour operators and travel agencies that have staked out their niches – and have stuck with them for a very long time. Just the fact that they’re still around proves that the “non-changing” approach works.

So, Happy New Year. Good luck with all the changes you make – but in an ideal world, those changes will be minimal and necessary -- and will not affect the things you want to be known for.

1 comment about "Changing The Way We Think About Change".
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  1. Don Nadeau from, February 13, 2013 at 6:47 a.m.

    Actually, two additional key operating policies have been implemented since the AirTran acquisition: International routes, with more to come, and stations with less frequent flights.

    In the past, not serving potentially lucrative airports such Northwest Arkansas Regional (Walmart) because they do not support a large number of flights has limited Southwest's potential, as has not having Hawaiian or international flights to spice up the appeal of its Rapid Rewards program.

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