“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” — Harold Wilson, British politician.
Successful businesses have always adapted readily to change, but at no time in living memory—and likely at no point in history—has adaptability been a more desirable business trait than it is today. Given our recent economic difficulties, in combination with accelerating technological sophistication, change occurs almost daily—whether we want it to or not.
The greatest obstacle to necessary change is a reluctance to modify or abandon procedures that have become familiar and comforting. But a flexible, agile organization has no choice but to change in the face of reality. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once pointed out, “The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
For good or ill, Nietzsche’s ideas have influenced entire generations of intellectuals, both in Germany and throughout the world. Few philosophers are as famous as he, if only for the Third Reich’s misuse of some of his philosophical concepts. Left fatherless at a young age, Nietzsche spent part of his childhood raised by his mother, maternal grandmother, and paternal aunts before his family moved into their own house after his grandmother’s death when he was twelve. He was educated in private schools, where he showed talent in language and music, though he also showed interest in topics considered “unbecoming,” such as unconventional poetry. His philosophical explorations began when he studied the works of Schopenhauer. Over the years, he “shed his skin” several times as he wandered away from the study of philology (his original career), renounced his Prussian citizenship, and served as an orderly in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), among other things. He certainly knew about shedding his skin.
Project and process management provide the meat and potatoes of the manager’s daily work; but given what the world has become, change management has also risen as a significant factor that we cannot ignore. We must actually help our teams embrace change rather than reject it. How?
- Make sure our team members understand the need for change.
- Make the organization’s primary goals clear to everyone.
- Find and root out resistance quickly.
- Lead by example.
- Follow by example—e.g., take the path our front line team members recommend, especially in regard to strategic execution.
- Involve team members in both the problem and the solution.
- Urge buy-in among senior employees.
- Identify and support change leaders.
All that’s difficult enough. But in this post-Great Recession world, you’ll need to adopt or adapt other change management methods as well, for the benefit of the organization—especially as you seek to expand into the vacuum of new opportunity left behind by the organizations that didn’t make it. For example, I would suggest:
1. Enhanced flexibility. Flexibility and its sibling, agility, have become paramount in any effort to succeed anywhere in modern business. But in the change management arena, the need is greater than ever. Organizational projects and direction must become ever more flexible; no longer can you try to force them to fit your original specifications and strategies, a topic I’ve written an entire book about (Execution IS the Strategy, Berrett-Koehler, March 2014). Use change management as a means of modifying scope and direction as you move forward, rather than as a way to stiffen those factors to meet requirements that no longer fit reality.
2. Controlled growth. Ironically, the enhanced flexibility discussed above should occur within a limiting framework, something like the creativity shaped and enforced by the poetic form known as the sonnet. As we move out into a landscape that has been somewhat depopulated by our previous troubles, we must take care not to expand too far, too fast. One reason the sun set on the British Empire was because it tried to hold too much territory all at once without slowing down to consolidate its gains. This may also explain, in part, why electronics giant Circuit City failed in 2009; it rushed into dozens of new markets and wasn’t able to sustain its growth. To the extent you have power to do so, you as a leader should choose new directions and investments very carefully, moving forward cautiously. Even if you have no power in this sense, you still have to guide your people as they adapt to the changes resulting from decisions above their pay grades.
3. Calculated abandonment. In the spirit of controlled growth, it may be necessary to help your people adjust to changes that result when the company officers or board decide to cut losses by selling off or abandoning some projects or branches of the company. For example: Aside from breaking up its Bell Operating Companies by government order in 1982, AT&T has split off whole branches of itself when it has proven expedient to do so—including equipment manufacturing business Lucent Technologies in late 1996.
While it may seem just a little simplistic to say that successful change management depends on a positive attitude and a willingness to accept change and work hard along the way…well, that’s what I’m saying. It’s common sense, but we know how uncommon that really is. For those who find this too Pollyannaish, realize that you do have to be a lot tougher than before to make sure it works. Calculated abandonment and limiting growth may sound like mistakes, and may at times feel like cutting off a limb.
But as a leader and change manager, you have to see the big picture. If your corporate or departmental “body” lies pinned under an economic stone by that one limb, your survival options may be limited if you don’t reach for the saw.
Tell us a story of how you’ve shed your skin in the past! What works?