Thriving on Discontinuous Change

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Carol Kinsey Goman

IBM's 2008 Global CEO Study finds that organizations are being bombarded by change, and many are struggling to keep up. Executives see significant change ahead, but the gap between expected change and the ability to manage it has almost tripled since the last Global Study in 2006.

The question is: How do we create the kind of organization that not only adapts quickly to current trends, but is aggressive about shaping and leading change?

There are two kinds of change—incremental and discontinuous—that are taking place simultaneously and constantly in business organizations around the world. Incremental change is the process of continuous improvement—what the Japanese refer to as "kaizen." Discontinuous change is the kind of large-scale transformation that turns organizations inside out and upside down.

If managing incremental change can be compared to encouraging a group of joggers to gradually pick up the pace, then leading discontinuous change is like getting those same joggers to leap off a cliff and build their parachutes on the way down.

Incremental change fits the Newtonian framework of a linear, progressive, and predictable world. There is an unmistakable logic behind incremental change that makes it easy to communicate and relatively easy for people to adopt. Best of all, it uses current practices as a baseline for the systematic improvement of a product, service, or system. And people like the fact that they can base their future success on their past performance.

But much of the change our organizations are facing today is not incremental. It is discontinuous. It is restructuring, reengineering, transformation. It is these actions—and others—that challenge our most deeply held beliefs about the past. Discontinuous change confronts the entire organization with the possibility that the very roles, actions, and attitudes that were most responsible for past success will be insufficient, and perhaps even detrimental, in the future. And that concept is difficult to communicate and much harder for people to adopt.

No one likes to contemplate letting go of the skills and behaviors that "got us here." As individuals, we become psychologically attached to the status quo because it is familiar and comfortable. But even more difficult than fighting off the inertia of comfort, we find it hard to let go of the past because it is there that we've experienced personal success.

Understandably, people like the experience of mastery; it's basic human psychology. But unfortunately, it’s not an attitude that helps us move forward. Although "knowledge is power" may have been an accurate assumption in the past, the reality of today's high-speed business environment is that information and skills become outdated faster than the current fashion. In this climate, employees are valued primarily for how quickly they can learn, unlearn, and relearn.

One of the greatest challenges for anyone who wants to become change adept is to identify those practices and attitudes that need to be unlearned in order to more quickly adopt new behaviors.

Here are a few questions to consider:

  • What do I do best? (What skills and abilities am I most proud of?)
  • Which current skills, abilities, and attitudes will continue to make me successful in the future?
  • How does feeling competent stop me from doing things differently? (Where are the "comfort zones" that I'm most reluctant to leave?)
  • What new skills do I need to learn to stay valuable to the organization?
  • What do I need to unlearn? (Which skills are becoming obsolete? What practices—attitudes, behaviors, work routines, etc.—that worked for me in the past are no longer valid?)

Leaders who help their team thrive on discontinuous change begin by identifying those skills and behaviors that they themselves need to learn and unlearn. Then they address the topic openly: they talk about their own problems with letting go of past competencies, they empathize with the feelings of awkwardness that come with leaving the "comfort zone," and they are candid about why they decided to leave some behaviors in the past in order to better serve the future. Then they massage damaged egos by applauding the team members’ efforts.

You can learn more about managing conflict and dealing with change in these AMA seminars:

About the Author(s)

Carol Kinsey Goman coaches executives, helps teams develop strategies, and delivers keynote speeches and seminars to business audiences around the world. She is the author of nine books, including her latest, The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information: telephone: 510-526-1727, e-mail: [email protected], or  the Web: