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Implications of Change

The bottom line is that the size, speed, and unpredictability of change are greater than ever before. Whether there are ten forces flattening the world, or seven drivers of a borderless business environment, or five mega-trends, the fact remains that the challenge of change is here to stay and is only going to get more daunting. Consequently, the costs of being late with change can be not just inconvenient but devastating.

We don't have to look far to see the consequences of not meeting this challenge. AT&T, GM, Kmart, Kodak, and Xerox, in the U.S.; ABB, Airbus, and De Beers in Europe; and Mitsubishi and Sony in Japan, are just a few examples of companies that faltered, brought in new leaders to champion change, and still failed to recover. Any of these companies may yet recover and revitalize just as IBM or Nissan did (at least for a decade). However, the cost of recovering from crisis in terms of lost shareholder value, reputation, or jobs for employees are inevitably higher than if the companies and their leaders had met the challenge of change earlier.

However, the challenge of change is not confined to the boardroom. In fact, in our experience the real battles happen below the radar screen of newspaper and magazine headlines. The reality is that for every failed change featured in some headline, there are literally hundreds of failures far below the CEO suite. These seemingly invisible individual examples consist of innumerable upper- and middle-level leaders whose seemingly fast-track careers were derailed when a change initiative they were leading crashed and burned.

For those whose careers or reputations have not been tarnished by a failed change initiative, the frustrating but inescapable fact of the matter seems to be that no matter how good we have been at leading change in the past, the future will demand even more of us. Therefore, our view is that past success, even for a given individual manager, is not a good predictor of future performance when it comes to leading change. The specific changes any one of us might be called upon to lead are as varied as the industries, countries, and companies we work in. The change might involve:

  • Transforming a business unit that succeeded for years by focusing on technological prowess into a unit that must now focus on customer service.
  • Leading an organization from domestic competition onto the global battlefield.
  • Accelerating growth by focusing not just on building things, but on all the services that go with after-sales support.
  • Changing the culture from one of considered deliberations to fast, first-moving decision-makers.
  • Redesigning jobs to incorporate new technology that we hardly understand.
  • Changing our personal leadership style from a command and control focus to one that is more network-centric and inclusive.
  • Something else equally daunting.

In looking at these and myriad other changes, we have observed an important but often overlooked fact for leaders. It is this: Rarely, if ever, are changes required of an organization, a business, a unit, or a team that require no change from the one leading that organization, business, unit, or team. In fact, quite often when we survey or interview those whom the leaders view as needing to change, their comment is, "I hear what my leader is saying, but I'm watching what he or she is doing." In other words, in many cases, those whom the leader is trying to influence and change are looking up but often see no change in the leader. In effect, to them the leader is saying, "Do as I say, not as I do." Sometimes it seems that we have forgotten that this approach never worked for our parents when we were children, nor does it work for us as parents. The principle of "leading by example" is true enough that the approach of "do as I say, not as I do" does not work for anyone—neither as parents nor as leaders.

As a consequence, our experience is that the most successful leaders of change not only recognize that organizational change requires first changing individuals, but that changing other individuals first requires leading by example and changing oneself.

Unfortunately, most people (ourselves included) are programmed to resist change. For example, try this simple experiment. Ask two people to stand face to face and then raise their arms to shoulder height, palms forward. Then request each person to press their palm against that of the other person standing opposite them. What happens? As soon as you feel pressure coming from the other person into your hands, you resist. It is almost a reflex reaction. So it is with change. As soon as people (again including ourselves) feel some pressure, almost instinctively we push back; we resist. Not only that, but the harder people are pushed to change, it seems the more forcefully they resist. It is almost as if they are unconscious disciples of Newtonian physics and automatically feel obliged that for every action to change them they must exhibit an equal and opposite reaction to resist.

As we briefly mentioned earlier, we all have mental maps, and the more these maps have worked in the past, the more deeply entrenched they are in our brains. By the way, this is nearly a literal expression. That is, as impulses travel over the same neural pathways, they etch the path ever deeper in our brains. Efforts to redraw and change mental maps and walk in new paths are almost always met with resistance—often instinctual or reflex resistance. In the end, the human brain poses a significant set of barriers that we must break through if we are to meet the increasing demands of leading change in ourselves and in others.

This is why we argue that unlocking individual change starts and ends with the mental maps people carry in their heads—how they see the organization and their world at work. Just as actual maps guide the steps people take on a hike through the Himalayas, mental maps direct people's behavior through the daily ups and downs of organizational life. And if leaders cannot change their own and others' mental maps, they will not change the destinations people pursue or the paths they take to get there. If what is in people's heads is not remapped, then their hearts and hands have nothing new to follow.

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