“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
Let’s not oversell the degree of change in today’s environment…
Here’s a very heretical thought – one of the problems with today’s approach to change management is that we’re overstating the amount of change in a given effort. Let’s step back in history a bit. Contrary to the current popular hype, people living in the West (the industrialized world: Europe, North America, and Japan) during the period 1850 to 1950 were subjected to more profound changes in their lives than we are today. They moved from an existence dominated by agricultural to an industrialized society. The rest of the world has been making the same profound transition as well, up to the present day. When we look at our lives in the West today, the patterns of our existence have not changed nearly as much as those of our grandparents and great-grandparents.
Yes, we have seen great strides in our lifetimes: in health, in transportation, in communication, as well as in society, with a significant reduction in violence and with the opening of opportunities to a far broader spectrum of society. But all of these positive changes rest on the great movements and discoveries of the past 200 years; industrialization has brought the remarkable trend of cumulative improvement into our lives.
Probably the greatest change we are experiencing now comes from the technology of digitization, with the explosive ability to collect, store, analyze, and disseminate information at almost no cost. But the fabric of our lives has been remarkably consistent, especially when compared to the upheavals caused in the recent past by industrialization. Therefore, I have observed that one of the greatest errors in today’s change management approaches is to treat every change as a profound, life-changing event. I suggest, on the contrary, that we more carefully assess the degree of change we may be facing.
The Change Triage: should we adjust, adapt, or transform?
Organizations should consider a range of possible actions, either in anticipation of, or in response to, changing situations that could affect one or more of the four key organizational areas: strategy, people, process, and technology [Please note – the term “people” refers to the talent and behaviors for people in affected roles]:
- Adjust: make a minor change in one or more of the key areas
- Adapt: make a major change in one of the key areas, with accompanying minor changes in the other areas
- Transform: make a major change in two or more of the key areas and reconstruct the basic model of the organization
There is plenty of change fatigue in organizations today because leaders unnecessarily turn minor adjustments into cosmic transformations. Being more precise about what really needs to change helps define the too often overlooked but essential question: what doesn’t need to change? The questions of the degree of change and the resulting question of what doesn’t change must be addressed to manage the most difficult aspect of change: human nature.
The wild card in organizational change is the human factor. We’re a contradictory mix of different emotions and flawed reasoning about change…
Our own complex nature makes us ambivalent about, and often resistant to, change. We all have a strong inclination to seek a steady state, a stasis, in our lives. We seek predictability and control in most endeavors. But to complicate matters further, we also have an attraction to novelty, and we will sometimes gamble. To make matters worse, our judgments in matters of risk are often flawed, a weakness solidly confirmed by research. The bottom line is that we humans are not well equipped to handle change. (And remember, biological evolution will not help us; that requires successive generations, which won’t help us at today’s pace.)
The care and feeding of humans during change
How to approach a change effort?
- First, assess the change realistically, and triage it according to its anticipated degree of change: adjust, adapt, or transform. Transformations are big muscle movements, so approach those very carefully.
- Remember that enthusiasm for change is directly proportional to the control that one has over the effort. Senior executives and consultants can get very excited over a change effort that people further down in the organization dread.
- One huge source of dread is “What’s going to happen to me?” If people are going to be let go in the process of change, make that known as soon as possible. No one will focus on the change effort if they fear they may not be around.
- Determine what in the organization will NOT change and use those as anchors. My observation in the military was that the best trained units were always the most flexible, because they had a foundation of set ways from which they could then make changes, while keeping the fundamentals intact.
- Always expect skepticism and resistance but mitigate this by personalizing the effort for each participant, that is, portraying the change from that person’s viewpoint (and self-interest).
- Focus on the critical behaviors that must change for the overall change effort to succeed. Not everyone in the organization may even be impacted by the change effort, so make this distinction early on.
- Anticipate what resources (training, equipment) people will need to effect the change at their levels.
Managing change must become an organizational core competency
Although I believe that the degree of change is too often overstated, the constant presence of change in today’s environment is indisputable. The ability to adjust, adapt, or transform is a critical skill for any organization today. A final heretical thought, especially from a retired management consultant: all change efforts must be led from inside the organization. Outside help for expertise and extra arms and legs is fine, but consultants should never be brought in so the executives and managers in the organization undergoing change can continue with their day jobs. Changing their organization IS their job. Leading change is one of the most challenging leadership roles; it should never be entrusted to outsiders, rookies, or amateurs.
The ability to change successfully through the entire range of efforts (adjust, adapt, and transform) is organizational elasticity, and this must become a core competency of any organization that wants to survive and thrive.