Change is a reality that is here to stay, no question. But how we deal with change doesn’t have to create fear and uncertainty, or be overly managed with structure and templates. If you can move to a culture of design thinking and learning, organizational agility, and a willingness to embrace change can become naturally woven into the day-to-day work and routines of your team.
For a long time, I believed the prevailing wisdom that people are generally uncomfortable with change. I’m not sure exactly where I picked up that idea, or how it became so ingrained in my psyche, but I know many people who talk about the change they’re experiencing with high levels of anxiety.
This fear though, might be more accurately described as concerns with lack of information and control. Actionable.co Founder Chris Taylor recently shared this wisdom from Emotional Equations by Chip Conley:
Anxiety = uncertainty x powerlessness
This simple equation goes a long way toward explaining the anxiety that many people feel when it comes to change—a lack of knowledge is multiplied by a lack of control, resulting in anxiety and discomfort.
Unfortunately, there is little to no reprieve from the pace of change for organizations on the horizon. In an effort to make change manageable, many organizations fall into the trap of trivializing the change process. They try to map out “change initiatives” in order to reduce uncertainty, and assign portions of the process to reduce the feeling of powerlessness and minimize anxiety. They think of change as a process with a beginning, middle, and end—start where they are, muddle through, achieve a desired end state, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and goes back to “business as usual.”
The problem is, “business as usual” simply doesn’t exist anymore (if it ever did). In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous landscape, things move too quickly to ever reach a state of stasis.
The VUCA world is messy—and yet far too often, we look for discrete processes to manage our work. And to be fair, people love frameworks. As my colleague Nikki Barrett recently wrote:
Watch enough keynotes and TED Talks and you would be forgiven for assuming pretty much anything can be tackled in three steps, four agreements, seven habits, or some dazzling constellation thereof.
Developing new change formulas isn’t the answer; habits, that can be used to generate unique outcomes as requirements change, are what’s needed. Before we dig into habits, let’s look more closely at why issues about pace, agility and change are accelerating, and not likely to slow down anytime soon.
Trends Driving the Shift
The exponential rate of change means organizations simply can’t do the same things they are doing today (or that they have done in the past), try to do them faster, and have any hope of keeping up. Change is the new normal, and the rate of disruption makes the status quo a thing of the past (if it ever existed in the first place).
The rate of technology change has outpaced our ability to keep up with it—technology is evolving on an exponential curve, while people learn and grow in a more or less straight line. As authors Ito and Howe note in Whiplash, “Change outpaced humans sometime late in the last century. These are exponential times.”
To keep up with the pace of change, organizations are moving away from discrete teams, and embracing a matrixed environment.
Gallup defines a matrixed employee as someone who may work on multiple teams every day, reporting to the same or different managers.
However, having more matrixed teams won’t be sufficient on their own as a solution to increasing speed and organizational agility.
The research goes on to suggest that as organizations become more matrixed, collaboration may increase, but employees can become less clear about their roles and what is expected of them. This gap is significant because role clarity and accountability are among the most important drivers of employee engagement and overall organizational health.
We know we need to work more effectively and at a faster pace, yet few organizations are successfully creating the conditions that are required for teams and organizations to thrive in a state of constant change.
Organizational Agility Translates to Success
To keep up with the pace of change, organizations need to be agile: to work in a mode that allows for new information to be understood and integrated on an ongoing basis, with high levels of flexibility and adaptation.
According to a McKinsey study, 70% of agile companies rank in the top quartile for organizational health. The study goes on to explain:
20% of the companies in the sample were fast (a combination of 8% described as “start-up”, and 12% described as “agile”, with a combination of speed and stability). All 20% of these companies had better organizational-health scores than the other 80%.
Organizational agility provides a competitive advantage that should not be underestimated. As your organization adopts new initiatives to keep up with the pace of technological change, the success or failure of those projects will hinge on agility. The PMI Organizational Agility Report identified the following benefits of increased organizational agility:
The data above mimics the data on employee engagement—improving business outcomes across the organization. Higher profits, improved efficiency, better customer satisfaction—the list goes on. Furthermore, agile organizations enjoy a faster response to changing market conditions. Recent years have seen massive disruption in a wide variety of industries, and that trend is certain to continue. Organizations that are not pursuing agility, or are failing to think ahead to the coming shifts and trends that will affect their market, are handing opportunities over to more agile competitors who are seeking innovative ways to stay ahead of market changes.
Organizational Agility As “Openness to Change” Mindset
Of course, organizations can’t simply declare themselves as agile and then reap the rewards. Managing a state of constant change requires a culture of transparency, learning, speed, and trust. It requires a growth mindset that acknowledges the messiness of a VUCA world, and that does not trivialize the nature of change. Top-down change initiatives, lagging indicators of organizational health and performance, or a belief that change can be managed in a three-step process, all fail to address the daily requirement for change vigilance and response.
If you’re looking to increase agility on your team, examine the systems that are in place around the work they do—where do bottlenecks exist? If, for example, slow decision making is delaying the rate of incorporating new approaches into your work activities, take time to figure out where processes can be streamlined.
As Dave Girouard argues in First Round Review, “WHEN a decision is made is much more important than WHAT decision is made.”
Which brings us to an iterative approach to working. Once a decision has been made, get a minimum viable version of the project together, and then start to make improvements on it. Far too often, organizations attempt to complete a project from start to finish, agonizing over details before launching an initiative. Using this approach can be frustrating—just when you think you’re “finished” with a project, feedback starts to roll in, and there are bugs, structural problems, or massive changes that need to be made. An iterative approach to working guards against this frustration. Get started, and then improve on what you have.
Establishing an iterative mindset in all areas of your work can also guard against a fixation on processes or activities that may become irrelevant in a shifting marketplace. Think about BlockBuster and Netflix: while BlockBuster was focused on brick and mortar stores, and the associated supply chain (which they were in fact, quite good at), Netflix was thinking ahead to digital delivery. Where do you get your movies today?
Thriving in Change Needs a Learning Culture Mindset
In order to thrive in a state of constant change, teams need to be supported by a robust learning culture. Uncertainty is a feature of change—with rapid shifts occurring in quick succession, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to muddle through without learning something new. A learning mindset is an effective companion to a change mindset: as teams move through ideas—testing, implementing, revising, repeating—learning can keep them energized and excited to take on challenges.
However, organizations and teams need to move beyond an event or content based approach to learning. The kind of learning teams need to effectively manage change cannot be delivered in an off-site training session, or with access to a database of content. Learning needs to be delivered within the context of daily work activities, at the moment it is needed. As my colleague Alyssa Burkus wrote:
Organizations won’t be able to evolve their learning offerings if they continue to work with the “push” approach to learning and development, where centralized L&D teams determine what, when and how learning is delivered. Instead, L&D needs to adopt a “pull” approach—creating the culture and conditions that enable teams to pull in learning content that fits the context of their work.
In the Learning Culture Evolution model above, we’ve mapped Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning against an evolution from content focused learning, to context based learning systems. Organizations see increased ROI on their learning investments as they move into highly integrated learning solutions. By embracing a “learn as you go” culture, organizations are able to avoid the delays that occur when content is being developed into training (or when teams have to step away from their work to attend a training event). Furthermore, the integration of learning into daily work activities radically reduces the risk of content being heard and forgotten, or worse, irrelevant to the context of the team, and thus a complete waste of time.
Change Isn’t A Framework, It’s a Habit
Change isn’t a framework—it can’t be solved or unlocked with a magical combination of three step processes, top-down initiatives, or once a year training programs. Instead, leaders should be thinking of change as a habit—the skills and mindset required to navigate change can be developed and refined with deliberate effort over time, but this requires consistent effort and attention.
Thinking of change as a habit will help leaders and organizations embrace the messy complexity of a VUCA world. It will also enable the consistency that is required to balance out agility and develop effective strategic leadership. As John Coleman argues,
It’s in the combination of consistency and agility that leaders can become strategic, performing an organization’s purpose with excellence but changing course when the situation demands. These leaders have high quality standards, achieve goals, and expect consistency, but they are also open to change, keep an eye on the external environment, and understand when old ways of working no longer pass the test of the market in which they compete.
Learning is critical to the development of change as a habit, and should be embedded into organizational and team culture. Learning also supports an iterative approach to working—synthesizing new information, within the context of the work environment, will lead to new connections, ideas, and improvements.
Even the most skilled and knowledgeable teams will face a degree of uncertainty and powerlessness in a rapidly shifting landscape. However, the organizations and teams that are able to live comfortably with change—adopting a learning culture, a growth mindset, and embracing the opportunities of a shifting market—will have a significant competitive advantage in the years to come.
VUCA is here to stay. Yet so many organizations rely on simple solutions, top-down directives, lagging performance indicators, and outdated hierarchies. It’s time to embrace change, not as a “bug”, but as a feature. Change cannot be viewed as an inevitable inconvenience: it should be welcomed as an exciting reality with the potential to create new opportunities.
Maybe we don’t suck at change, we just suck at change initiatives. Change is messy and uncertain, and in our efforts to create order out of the chaos, we trivialize the process, effectively missing the point. One thing is certain—change is here to stay. Will you embrace it? Or get swept away?