Managing Continuous Change
Jan 24, 2019
A reporter once asked Dale Berra, son of baseball great Yogi Berra and a major leaguer himself, if he was similar to his father. Taking a page from his oft-quoted father, Dale replied,"No, our similarities are different."
I thought of this comment the other day when a client I had worked with several years ago contacted me about speaking at an upcoming leadership event.
"Sure!" I said, "I'd love to work with your organization again. But tell me, are you facing the same problems with organizational change as when I last addressed this audience?" He quickly replied, "Oh no, it's nothing like before. Sure, we are still trying to get people to embrace change, but the now the change is completely different!"
Over 20 years ago, I began researching, writing, and speaking about managing the "human side" of organizational change. At the time I thought it was a topic that would be a top priority—for a few years (until we'd all mastered the strategies and techniques of change management)—and then the focus would shift to more current organizational challenges.
I was wrong. Two decades later, dealing with change remains the crucial organizational challenge.
In a recent survey by the Conference Board, 539 global CEOs were asked to list their top concerns. In Europe and Asia as well as in North America, organizational flexibility and adaptability to change consistently ranked at the top of the list. Only revenue growth received a higher ranking.
What I overlooked in my assumption of change mastery is the radical way change would, well . . . change. Many leaders did become proficient in managing incremental change (continuous improvement) and the occasional (or annual) large-scale transformation. But managers today face a flood of continuous, overlapping, and accelerating change that has turned their organizations upside down. And managing people through that kind of change requires all the communication and leadership strategies we learned in the past—and then some.
The shift from "a change" to "constant change" is more than just semantics. The increased difficulty lies in the fact that most people and processes are set up for continuity, not chaos. We're built to defend the status quo not to annihilate it. But the world is bombarding us with change so intensely that there we can barely regain our equilibrium or catch our breath. Nor is there much hope that the rate of change will ease any time soon.
So, what does it take to manage people through continuous change? Here are some suggestions:
- Realize that resistance to change is inevitable—and highly emotional. This may not surprise you, but you have to understand that it is a very real result of our neurological makeup. Change jerks us out of our comfort zone by stimulating the prefrontal cortex, an energy-intensive section of the brain responsible for insight and impulse control. But the prefrontal cortex is also directly linked to the most primitive part of the brain, the amygdala (the brain's fear circuitry, which in turn controls our "flight or fight" response). When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed with complex and unfamiliar concepts, the amygdala connection gets kicked into high gear. Each of us is then subject to the psychological disorientation and pain that can manifest in anxiety, fear, depression, sadness, fatigue, or anger.
Didn't think you were hired to manage emotional turmoil? Think again. Being aware of and responsive to the emotional component of change is now a prerequisite for effective leadership. This task is complicated by the fact that the emotional cycle of transition (denial, resistance, choice, acceptance, engagement) overlaps—as one change begins while others are in various stages.
- Give people a stabilizing foundation. In a constantly changing organization, where instability must be embraced as positive, a sense of stability can still be maintained through corporate identity and collective focus of purpose. The leader's role here is to create stability through a constant reinterpretation of the company's history, present activities, and vision for the future. When I use the term vision, I'm not referring to a corporate statement punctuated by bullet points. I'm talking about a clearly articulated, emotionally charged, and encompassing picture of what the organization is actually trying to achieve.
- Help your staff/team/department understand that change really is the only constant. Never let people assume that once any single change is completed, the organization will solidify into a new form. Instead, help them understand that solidity has a much shorter life span than ever before. As processes temporarily manifest themselves in structures, we all should get ready for the next transformation.
- Champion information access and knowledge sharing. As one savvy communicator put it, "My most important function is to feed organizational data to the whole organization. The data are often quite simple, containing a large percentage of information already known to many. But when an organization is willing to publicly present that information, to listen to different interpretations and to encourage the conversation—the result is a powerful catalyst for change."
- Encourage employees to mingle. The new change-management fundamentals include an increasing focus on relationships and collaboration. Social networks among individuals that are based on mutual trust, shared work experiences, and common physical and virtual spaces are in many senses the true structure of today's organizations. Anything you as a leader can do to nurture these mutually rewarding, complex, and shifting relationships will enhance the creativity and change readiness within your team or throughout your organization.
- Give up the illusion of control. The biggest obstacle to achieving the organizational flexibility that executives say they want may be their unwillingness to give up control. Rather than tighten the reins, leaders need to loosen their grip in order to align the energies and talents of their teams and organizations around change initiatives. No one likes change that is mandated, but most of us react favorably to a change we help create. Leaders need to loosen their hold on information, as well. Transparent communication means disclosing market realities and the company's inner workings to everyone, not just to the upper echelon. It requires an unprecedented openness: a proactive, even aggressive, sharing of financials, strategy, business opportunities, risks, successes, and failures. People need pertinent information about demographic, global, economic, technological, consumer, and competitive trends. They need to understand the economic reality of the business and why that reality is the driving force behind change. Most of all, people need to understand how their actions impact the success of change initiatives and how those initiatives impact the overall success of the corporation.
I often tell audiences that "organizations don't change, people do . . . or they don't." Today's climate of continuous change may indeed be different from change in the past. But here's one thing that has hasn't changed: people are still the key. Or, as Yogi Berra might have explained it: When it comes to the importance of the human element in change, "It's déjà vu all over again."