“Change – Do We Really Have To?”

Do we really have to change? No, we don’t! Now that’s the answer that we seldom hear, but it is true. We don’t have to change! But – yes, there is a but – having to change and needing to change are two very different things, and it is important that we think through our response to change before we offer it.

As much has been written about change as anything in leadership and management literature over the past 25 years. A quick review of past issues Harvard Business Review or Fast Company will reveal as much about change as any topic. However, all of that writing has not made it any easier to implement or embrace change.

So what should we do to best address change as it stands at our door and knocks? Ron Heifetz, in his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009), states, “Resistance to change stems from a fear of losing something important.” He further identifies those losses as being in categories like “identity, competence, reputation, status or job.” (pp. 96-97). While some of these categories sound somewhat self-serving, the reality is that to avoid addressing these critical categories ensures resistance, and conflict will arise.  Leaders who are charged with leading change need to take the time and lay the groundwork for change to be successfully implemented and embraced.

So how do we successfully implement change? Here are three questions to start with when considering an organizational change:

Why are we changing? Simon Senek, in his book Start With Why (2009), does an excellent job of framing the importance of starting with “why.” So often, as he writes, we focus on the “what” or the “how” and fail to talk about “why.” This model has great application to change. If we are to expect successful implementation of change before we answer what are we going to change and how are we going to change, we need to address the fundamental question of why we are changing. We also need to know what the impact on people will be, and we need to be prepared to say how our decision making has included those who will be affected . While the fact that change can negatively affect people does not mean we should not change. But a failure to consider the impact on people is simply wrong. Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This statement sums up the role that leaders should take when implementing change.

What is the right speed to implement the change? Typically, change is driven to some degree by external forces. In the public sector, those forces could be budget cuts, or in the corporate sector they could be declining sales. Leaders are under these pressures and have to manage those pressures as best they can. However, the speed with which a change is implemented is an important consideration. Moving too quickly may mean that the group, company or organization is not prepared to execute the change. Moving too slowly may mean that the moment is lost, and the desired impact of the change is missed. NASCAR provides us a great analogy to consider. NASCAR drivers and their crew chiefs are constantly monitoring how much fuel and tire tread they have to finish the race. Leaders charged with overseeing change must ensure that there is enough fuel in the tank and tread on the tires of the organization to ensure successful implementation.

What steps do we need to take to ensure that we are best prepared for future changes? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus was credited with the statement, “Change is the only constant in life.” While we often think of change as a modern concept, the fact is change has been a challenge for humanity throughout history. In recent years, we have seen organizations faced with the challenge of change moving away from 5-year strategic planning processes toward ongoing planning of strategic initiatives. This adaptation springs from the recognition that the world does not start and stop in 5-year increments but rather is constantly changing. Effective leaders today embrace the reality of change and identify processes that cause organizations to be constantly evolving, adapting and changing. This requires leaders to be intentional and to identify individuals within their organizations to keep their hands on the pulse of external and internal forces affecting the organization. When organizational change occurs (and it will), a failure to develop systems that allow for these incremental, ongoing changes to continue could be a fatal organizational mistake, given the rate and intensity of change in today’s world.

Dr. Marshall Stewart


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