Thriving on Discontinuous Change
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?
Two kinds of change—incremental and discontinuous—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. An unmistakable logic behind it 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. 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.
An Unlearning Agenda
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.
People like the experience of mastery. That’s understandable. It’s basic human psychology. But it is 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 adept at change is identifying the practices and attitudes that need to be unlearned to adopt more productive new behaviors more quickly.
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 colleagues 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 to better serve the future. Then they massage damaged egos by applauding the efforts that everybody is making.
Building a style of behavior that is comfortable with—even aggressive about—significant projected change means helping everyone realize that the process of continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning is the key to both organizational and personal success.
Carol Kinsey Goman is a keynote speaker who helps association, government, and business audiences around the world thrive on change. Her newest book (and program topic) is The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work. For more information, call 510/526-1727, email: CGoman@CKG.com, or visit her at CKG.com and NonverbalAdvantage.com.