Wednesday, August 02, 2020

Change and Stability

Business gurus and management writers are often vocal about change and the necessity of responding to the shifting of circumstances around us. They point out again and again that failing to adapt to a changing world puts businesses at risk from obsolescence and rigidity. So far, so good. But change is a complex of situations and perceptions, and changing too much, too often, will likely cause as much damage as changing too little, too late.

People need some sense of stability. Even those most open to new ideas and fresh approaches cannot operate effectively in the midst of wholesale changes to every part of their life. That is too disorienting. It produces more stress than most people can handle and still remain effective. It also destroys any sense of meaning in what you do, since if things are going to be radically different tomorrow, any meaning they possess today will disappear along with everything else.

In getting the balance right between too much change and too little, I think it helps to make a fundamental distinction between two aspects of business functioning: “how we (currently) do business” and “what this organization stands for.”

How We Do Business

Changing how you do business should be easy, painless and a nearly constant activity for everyone. That is where staying abreast of changing conditions in the marketplace pays off. Instead of infrequent, wholesale upheavals that cause major disruption and leave the organization breathless and confused for months afterwards, organizations should be looking all the time for smaller, simpler, and far less painful adjustments that can be instituted easily and without significant upset.

Clinging to “how we do business” is not likely to be any sort of competitive advantage if the rest of the market begins to move to a different mode. People are less reluctant to change their buying habits than many organizations would like to believe, especially if they either see an advantage in a new approach, or think it is fashionable enough to make them look “with it” and ahead of their friends. Look how quickly and easily millions have switched to Internet purchases, even for goods you might reasonably expect they would want to see and handle before buying.

Usually the strongest resistance to changing how an organization does business is internal. It comes from groups who fear their jobs or influence will wane if business systems are changed; from individuals who are unwilling to make the effort to learn new ways, or who are afraid their expertise will become less valuable; and from those who suspect their own credibility is tied up with the current ways of doing things. These groups can form a powerful coalition to defeat those who march in, waving the banners of wholesale transformation and full of themselves as great change catalysts and leaders.

Trying to impose change by brute force is rarely a sound idea. It doesn’t matter whether you rush into introducing reforms, assuming everyone can be won over by your boundless enthusiasm; or you try instead to impose change by means of authority. Either way may begin by creating “shock and awe,” and sending a cowed opposition underground, but those who are hostile to you and your changes will gradually re-emerge from their hideouts and bunkers to wage the kind of guerilla warfare it can be impossible to counteract.

What This Organization Stands For

That brings me to the second category: “what this organization stands for.” The meaning people crave in their lives should be found not in superficialities of business practice, but in the fundamentals of what the organization exists to achieve or promote. If what your organization stands for is soundly based, there should be no need even to consider changing that for years, decades, or maybe for ever. By holding to a strong pattern of guiding principles, values, and beliefs, around which everyone can rally, you make it far easier for people to accept changes elsewhere. Everyone will retain a strong sense of stability, even in the midst of the most hectic periods of change and redirection.

Part of the benefit of slowing down is the chance it gives leaders to focus on what really matters to long-term survival and success, however much other changes happen along the way.Too many leaders assume they know what their organizations stands for and fail to articulate it clearly enough for others to understand as well. Even more focus the organization’s purpose on shoddy, meaningless outcomes, such as mere profit for shareholders and top executives. Few will rally behind a cause like that. Who can blame them?

By focusing on what the organization stands for and holding steadily to that—first being sure that is something that can engage others and fire their enthusiasm—coping with change becomes little more than adjusting the means needed to reach an agreed set of goals. There’s nothing special about most change. It happens constantly. It only become important when it threatens the meaning and purpose for which the organization exists.

“How we do business” is not worth clinging to or protecting for more than a moment. “What this organization stands for” may be worth defending with everything you have—and doing so with almost any sacrifice needed for as long as it takes.

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