The experience of change can be enriching, rewarding and beautiful as well as uncomfortable, costly and painful. I have been an evangelist of change in organizations for my whole working life and I have witnessed the pride and enthusiasm of new ideas going live and the bitterness and frustration of people who would prefer not to change.
I’d like to move beyond the trite bytes of wit (“dinosaurs disappeared because they didn’t change”, “remember Kodak and Nokia?”), and offer two pieces of advice to leaders in organizations.
The first is: Embrace Disruption, in your organization.
Whether we like it or not change is disruptive. We are moving out of old routines into new patterns of work involving learning new things, undertaking new responsibilities possibly with new people, in new physical and virtual spaces. At the same time, as we are setting up anew, we will probably also have to deliver our existing targets the conventional way. So for a while we work in the order of things past as well as trying to tame the chaos of things to be. The new continuity is constant change. I suggest it should be a permanent state of affairs in contemporary organizations.
From my own experience in consultancy and as a CEO, introducing change in a conservative company is difficult at first but, when it happens once, the second and third rounds of change become easier for people to implement, absorb and appreciate.
Leadership under such circumstances calls for the skills of an explorer who deals with the unknown all the time.
In practical terms leaders must communicate targets in the clearest possible way. They must also offer structure, know-how and time for novelty to develop and genuinely support people as they reorganize themselves.
In emotional terms fear of failure and loss of control are among the most important barriers to change. Leaders must ensure their people are constantly in motion, minimize the bitching, the denial, the anger, the scepticism and maximize enthusiasm, new learning and imagination for the future. Allowing (a little) time for reflection and consolidation is also useful.
The second piece of advice is: Embrace Disruption, yourself.
A popular cartoon has two frames. The first shows a man speaking to a crowd. “Who wants change?” he asks, as everyone raises their hands. In the second frame he asks “Who wants to change?” and not a single hand is raised. The biggest barrier to change of all is the one you see in your mirror every morning.
“To change others one must be ready to change oneself” (an insight attributed to Socrates) suggests that you can in fact teach yourself to change.
It is possible to learn to live with ambiguity, enjoy the challenges of chaos and accept disorder as a part of life. Recognize that you can’t change or even slow down whatever change is already happening so fast all around you. And build up the courage to make change happen by doing things differently and doing new things every day.
To change is risky but not to change is riskier still.