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Resilience and the Speed of Change
The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once observed that “the major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the society in which they occur.” We live in times that reflect such turmoil. Never before has so much changed so fast and with such dramatic implications for the entire world. From the nuclear family to nuclear-arms treaties, our way of life is transforming as we live it.
At a personal level, change is intensifying dramatically for us all. We face an unsettling amount of individual change as evidenced by the alarming frequency of marriages, pregnancies, divorces, promotions, job changes, relocations, health problems, drug abuse, retirements, and family strife in our society today. Women juggle marriage, children, and careers; men are trying to be sensitive husbands and fathers after skirmishing on the corporate battlefield. In the workplace we are also confronted with massive change—ever-advancing technologies, mergers, acquisitions, rightsizing, new policies and procedures, reorganizations, and constantly shifting duties and reporting responsibilities.
Besides changes at the individual and organizational levels, there are profound national and global transitions that are not only altering our lives but shaping those of our children and grandchildren. For example:
•The primary mode of communication has shifted from typography to electronics (and now voice mail, e-mail, and text messaging), thus changing the way people think, converse, and educate themselves.
•Advanced media technology means that a significant shift in one part of the world is almost instantaneously known on the other side of the globe.
•The growth of information is occurring so fast that the “shelf life” of facts and technology has been reduced to almost nothing.
•The planet’s fragile ecosystems will no longer sustain humankind’s capacity to reproduce, its increasing demand for natural resources, or its waste generation.
•Nations bordering the North Atlantic Ocean are no longer the dominant economic and political forces in the international arena.
•Advances in health care and genetic engineering promise new ways of fighting disease, but they also have opened a Pandora’s box of ethical issues.
•Faster modes of transportation are becoming available, creating greater economic opportunities but with potentially severe psychological and environmental costs.
•The redefinition of traditional male and female, ethnic, and racial roles is reshaping the structure of our society.
•The global terrorism threat has penetrated our sense of physi-cal, psychological, and social safety and affected travel, immigration policy, and many other aspects of our personal and work lives. It has also caused many organizations to implement security measures never before deemed necessary.
The magnitude of change today can prompt a doom-and-gloom vision, or it can be seen as an opportunity for a fundamental shift in how we humans define ourselves, where we are going, and how we will accomplish our goals. I have chosen the latter option. You can, too. You can make a difference in the course of events affecting you and your company today and in the future by learning how to better manage change.
Consulting to large organizations all over the world as they strive to alter key aspects of their operations has been a rich source of information for me. These engagements have afforded me the opportunity to observe, record, and analyze the behavior of thousands of managers as they attempt to implement major changes, including restructuring for competitive advantage, introducing new technology, shifting to a culture focused on quality and customer service, and many more.
When my work in this area first began to take shape in the early 1970s, it looked to me as if there were plenty of theories already available on the topic of organizational change. But I was interested in going beyond theory to find a way to understand what really works. I felt that the best way to approach this task was to actually witness people attempting to change, and to record what I saw.
Much of the research I have conducted is similar to that of field anthropologists and primate specialists. For years, the famous naturalist Dian Fossey lived in the jungles of Africa studying the behavior of gorillas. When she first began to present her findings, she didn’t claim to have discovered a new theory of how gorillas behave; she simply offered the results of her observations regarding how they lived.
Instead of going into the jungles to study apes, I have spent much of my life in corporate hallways observing and recording how humans respond to change. What I have acquired from more than thirty years of consulting, training, and research is a way of understanding what people are actually doing when they successfully implement organizational change. I have also acquired a way to pass this information on to others.
When I first began to study the behavior of people in transition, my work was limited to the United States, and I assumed that my findings reflected only the American approach to change. As I began to assist companies in Canada and Mexico, then throughout Asia, Australia, Western Europe, South America, and then in Hungary, Russia, and South Africa, I noticed some striking similarities in how people across the globe address transitions. Wherever I went, I recognized the same phenomenon—executives who successfully implement change, regardless of their location, display many of the same basic emotions, behaviors, and approaches. Those who succeed in New York or Moscow operate the same way as winners in Paris or São Paulo. And executives who fail to implement their change initiatives fall into similar traps whether they are in Hong Kong or Sydney.
People within each country demonstrate certain cultural idiosyncrasies in the way they respond to change, of course, but the basic human reactions to change are the same in everyone. By focusing on these similarities, I have found that certain actions fall into patterns, and that these patterns form a structure for understanding and describing the change process. Viewing change as a phenomenon that has a distinct shape and character, and studying individuals and organizations who manage major change well, have enabled me to synthesize the key elements of various successful change efforts. In doing so, I have determined that the single most important factor to managing change successfully is the degree to which people demonstrate resilience: the capacity to absorb high levels of change while displaying minimal dysfunctional behavior.
After several years of working independently, it became apparent that I had taken my interest in change as far as it was possible for one person to pursue alone. Further investigations of change would demand a formal research vehicle. In 1974, I formed ODR Inc. (Organizational Development Resources), a research and development company dedicated to the study of how humans respond to major changes. In 2003, ODR became Conner Partners. Building on ODR’s thirty-year legacy, Conner Partners created the first integrated framework for strategy execution—a new function and an emerging profession that is dedicated solely to the implementation of those initiatives that are critical to organizational survival and prosperity. (See the Epilogue for further information.)
Instead of viewing change as a mysterious event, we approach it as an understandable process that can be managed. This perspective allows people to avoid feeling victimized during transition; it promotes confidence that change can be planned and skillfully executed.
The aim of this book is to share what ODR has learned about resilience in the face of change in the hope that this knowledge will help you not only manage your own transitions successfully, but those of others as well.
MYTHS ABOUT CHANGE
From day care through college and the working life beyond, organizations have an immeasurable impact on how we view ourselves in relation to change. From our experiences in school, church, the military, and the many other organizations that touch our lives, most of us have come to accept similar unconscious assumptions about organizational change. Although firmly held, these assumptions are based mostly on fears and prejudice rather than fact. Here are some of the more popular myths:
•It is impossible to understand why people accept or resist change.
•Bureaucracies cannot really be changed.
•What leaders say about change should never be confused with reality.
•Change will always be mismanaged.
•Organizational efficiency and effectiveness inevitably decrease when changes are attempted.
•Those who help you implement the changes in which you believe are heroes, and those who resist are villains.
•Management is inherently insensitive to problems caused during the implementation of change.
•Employees are prone to resist any change that is good for the business.
This kind of unconscious indoctrination is so widespread that most people think it is natural for organizational change to be poorly handled and fail. To the contrary, our research indicates that badly handled organizational change is not the inevitable outcome of flawed human nature. It is merely the result of deeply ingrained habits, and these habits—even when present in one generation after another—can be modified.
People can be redirected to see successful organizational transformation as a distinct possibility. The victimization lessons most people learn from their change experience can be replaced with a real sense of empowerment, which stems from the application of certain guidelines that foster resilience.
The sheer amount of time people spend at work and the impact their jobs have on their lives make the workplace an ideal location for the development of resilience skills. One of the most effective ways to help people develop the necessary resilience for not only surviving but prospering during major change is to provide implementation guidelines that can be used in the office. In effect, one’s place of employment can become a classroom for learning the basics of resilience, which can then be applied not only at work but to other aspects of life as well. For these reasons, this book will present organizational settings as one of the best places to teach and learn resilience skills.
FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP
Because of the seriousness of today’s change-related problems and the great potential for opportunities, it is essential that as many people as possible learn how to better assimilate major transitions. This challenge is best approached, however, by focusing on those in leadership positions.
The changes required for the human race to live and work at a continually higher level of productivity and quality demand a critical mass of support from people at all levels of society. Only through the efforts of those who hold positions of formal or informal influence—leaders—can outdated methods of change be cast aside and new behaviors and procedures embraced.
Effective leaders are capable of reframing the thinking of those whom they guide, enabling them to see that significant changes are not only imperative but achievable. Yet the challenges facing these leaders go beyond determining what needs to be done differently. They must also address how to execute these decisions in a manner that has the greatest possibility for success. Leaders must keep in mind that the accuracy of decisions alone can never compensate for poor implementation.
This book does not focus on what should be changed in the world or which mechanism leaders can use to make the right decisions. Rather, it centers on how managers can fully implement their visions within the time and budget constraints that they face.
If you are someone who influences or hopes to influence organizational change, the mechanisms of resilience addressed in the following chapters will help you be more effective at managing these transitions. But these same mechanisms can be used to foster individual and social change as well. Specifically, this book is for:
•Those who influence personal change: parents for their fami-lies, counselors for the troubled, individuals for friends in need.
•Those who influence organizational change: executives, managers, and union leaders for work settings; administrators and teachers for educational systems; clergy for religious institutions; administrators, doctors, and nurses for health-care systems; consultants for their clients.
•Those who influence large-scale social change: politicians for the general public; civil servants for government; political action groups for special interests; researchers for the scientific community; opinion leaders for the media.
PATTERNS AND PRINCIPLES, NOT RULES, ARE THE KEY
This book is based on the lessons learned from observing people exhibiting resilience to major change. These lessons have been fashioned into a set of eight patterns and many principles that can be used by those who have responsibility for influencing and carrying out key decisions involving change in a business environment. Briefly, the eight patterns involve: (1) the nature of change, (2) the process of change, (3) the roles played during change, (4) resistance to it, (5) commitment to it, (6) how change affects culture, (7) synergy, and (8) the nature of resilience. Described in later chapters, these patterns depict how people typically operate during change, and the principles listed at the end of each chapter illustrate how to enhance resilience. If you apply these lessons and guidelines, it is possible for you to significantly increase the likelihood of implementing your own organizational initiative successfully.
Human transformation is too complex to be described by a set of rigid laws. Change is not a discrete event that occurs by linear progression; rather it unfolds on many different levels simultaneously. Instead of relying on hard and fast rules that can get you into trouble, acknowledge the complexity of change by focusing on these patterns and principles for your direction. They provide a much more realistic guidance system because they allow for the subtleties and paradoxes inherent in the way people experience real life.
Understanding how to use these patterns and their principles is essential if you are to successfully manage change. Apply- ing them will help you reduce the problems of resistance in the office, and even in your personal life, as well as help you dramatically increase support among those involved in major changes. The principles will provide you with a set of powerful guidelines for enhancing the resilience of individuals and organizations. Whether the change you wish to implement is a new approach to marketing your product or a merger with a large company, the principles you will need to apply are the same.
Putting into practice what you learn will not make you immune to the demands of change. Nevertheless, applying this knowledge will enable you to achieve some specific advantages. You will be able to:
•Understand that change is not as mysterious as most people think.
•Realize that change typically unfolds in a manner that can be recognized and predicted.
•Anticipate how you and others will respond during change.
•Plan how to implement change.
•Recognize the critical symptoms that can help you guide the change process.
•Take specific actions to facilitate progress through the change process.
•Help yourself and other people recover more quickly and effectively from the results of change.
MANAGING AT THE SPEED OF CHANGE
Light travels through space at a constant 186,281 miles per second. The laws of the universe dictate this speed with no deviation. Humans travel through life without the benefit of a fixed velocity. We move at a variable rate that fluctuates according to our capacity for assimilating new information and influences. How well we absorb the implications of change dramatically affects the rate at which we successfully manage the challenges we face, both individually and collectively.
When our perceived abilities and willingness to accomplish a task exceed or fall short of the dangers and opportunities we encounter, a disruption in our expectations results. When this disruption is significant, major change takes place. Just as some people walk faster, think quicker, or show emotion more easily than others, so do people assimilate change at different rates.
Each of us is designed by nature to move through life most effectively and efficiently at a unique pace that will allow us to absorb the major changes we face. This we refer to as our speed of change.
When we assimilate less change than our optimum speed would allow, we fail to live up to our potential. When we attempt to assimilate more than our optimum speed permits, we get into trouble. The fastest speed of change is that of an individual progressing through transition. Organizations tend to move more slowly, and the human race as a whole evolves at the slowest rate.
Regardless of age, position, wealth, status, motive, or desire, no individual, organization, or society can adequately absorb life’s inevitable transitions any faster than their own speed of change will allow. People can face an unlimited amount of uncertainty and newness, but when they exceed their absorption threshold they begin to display signs of dysfunction: fatigue, emotional burnout, inefficiency, sickness, drug abuse. People whose lives are challenging, but productive and healthy, are typically staying within the bounds of their individual and collective speed of change.
In this book I describe patterns and principles that can be used to accelerate the speed at which you can manage disrupted expectations for yourself and others. There is a basic axiom by which we all operate regardless of whether or not we are conscious of it: Our lives are the most effective and efficient when we are moving at a speed that allows us to appropriately assimilate the changes we face. This is not just the velocity at which things around us are changing, but the pace at which we can recover from disrupted expectations. This is not the speed at which we wish to change, or how fast our spouse, boss, or government tells us to change. It is the speed at which we are able to absorb change with a minimum of dysfunctional behavior.
As the world grows more complex, the pressures mount for us to manage more change at increasing speeds. Managing at the Speed of Change was written to provide executives, managers, and supervisors with an understanding of the patterns of change and the principles of resilience these leaders need to grasp in order to reach their organizations’ optimum speeds of transition. Hopefully, the application of these lessons will help you influence not only your organization’s ability to absorb change but your own assimilation capacity and the capacity of the larger social arenas in which you participate.
A brief outline will help you understand the book’s flow. The introduction to resilience and the speed of change (Part I) is presented in this and the following chapter. Although the book’s focus is on what leaders can do to better manage organizational change, let us not forget that at the heart of the matter are real people with real feelings. The second chapter explores the fear and anxiety that grip us at a personal level when we come face-to-face with major change.
Chapters 3 and 4 in Part II, The Change Imperative, discuss the increasing impact of change, future shock, and the price to be paid if we don’t learn how to absorb change more effectively. In Part III, Lessons Buried in the Mystery, the patterns of change and the principles of resilience start to unfold. Chapters 5 through 10 detail the first six of the eight patterns and their respective principles.
Because of its powerful impact on the other patterns, the seventh pattern dealing with synergistic teamwork is described in detail in Part IV, One Plus One Is Greater than Two. Chapters 11 and 12 review key lessons drawn from people we observed who form strong, synergistic working relationships to face change.
In Part V, The Nature of Resilience, the eighth and most important pattern is discussed. Chapters 13 through 15 are devoted to the mechanism of resilience itself—how people can learn to accommodate ever-increasing rates of change without suffering from its debilitating effects.
The book’s conclusion, Part VI, Opportunities and Responsibilities, is dedicated to the challenge of going beyond the benefits associated with managing change. People who learn how to become more resilient must also shoulder the obligations that accompany this advantage.