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Implications of Change

So what do the three inconvenient truths and the three dynamics of change discussed so far mean for you? Based on my experience with a large number and wide variety of executives, from Asia to Europe to the Americas, I think there are least six key implications:

  1. Start with yourself.
  2. Don’t be late.
  3. Expect resistance.
  4. Have an informed point of view (POV).
  5. Master through deliberate practice.
  6. Remember, good may not be good enough.

1. Start with Yourself

Take a look at the following list of potential changes. Which ones apply to you?

  • Transforming a business unit that succeeded for years by focusing on technological prowess into a unit that must now focus on customer insight and 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
  • Changing the unit’s leadership style from a command-and-control focus to one that is more network-centric and inclusive
  • Something else equally daunting

If you have been asked to lead any one of these major changes (hopefully not all of them at once), then I have little doubt that you are the right person for the job. At the same time, in my experience I have not met many leaders in these sorts of situations who didn’t need to change something about themselves in order to better bring about the change in the organization. Conversely, when I talk with people below the person who is tasked with leading the change, I consistently get a two-part message that I think is food for thought for any leader of change. The first message I consistently get is, “I get the needed change, and I see that it requires some changes in me, but I can also see some changes I think it requires in our leader.” The second message I quite frequently hear is, “Even though I can see the need for some changes in our leader, I don’t see those changes happening and I don’t see evidence that the leader even sees the need for personal change.” In effect, to them the leader is saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It may be worth reminding ourselves that this approach never worked for our parents when we were children, nor does it work for us as parents with our children. The principle of “leading by example” is relevant in most situations but it seems to be particularly important when it comes to leading change. As a consequence, my experience is that successful change not only requires first changing individuals, but it also requires the leaders of change to set the example by changing themselves.

2. Don’t Be Late

The old saying, “Better late than never, but better never late,” is generally good advice but of particular value in terms of change. Given the speed, magnitude, and unpredictability of change these days, if you are a bit slow as an individual or organization, there is an increasing chance that you simply will not have the opportunity to recover. For example, in a study I did with a colleague of the largest and fastest growing companies, I found that if a firm fell off the growth train, the odds that it could recover, run and catch up, and jump back on were about 24 percent in the 1980s, about 16 percent in the 1990s, and about 8 percent from 2000 to 2010.

We don’t have to look far to see the consequences of failing to respond to changes. Firms that used to dominate their industry and some that created their industry have fallen precipitously. Dell, Blockbuster, Kmart, Kodak, and Motorola, in the U.S.; ABB, Nokia, and De Beers in Europe; and Sanyo 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 and Nissan did (at least for a decade). However, the cost of recovering in terms of lost shareholder value, reputation, and jobs for employees is inevitably higher than if the companies and their leaders had met the challenge of change earlier.

3. Expect Resistance

Try this simple experiment: Stand face-to-face with someone and then have both of you raise your arms to shoulder height, palms forward. Now touch your palms to those of the other person and have them do the same to you. Not long after the palms touch, what happens? Invariably, as soon as you feel pressure in your palms coming from the other person, you press back—you resist. The other person does the same. It is almost a reflex reaction.

So it is with change. As soon as we (again, including myself) 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 we are all unconscious disciples of Newtonian physics and automatically feel obliged that for every action to change, we must exhibit an equal and opposite reaction to resist.

Although I will put forth in this book things we can do to avoid building up unnecessary resistance in others and what we can do to overcome resistance, some level of resistance is to be expected.

4. Have an Informed Point of View (POV)

In my research and consulting, I certainly have come across individuals who seem to have some natural aptitude for leading change, and conversely I have come across those who seem to have little if any natural aptitude. However, I have not come across any leaders who are consistently good at leading change who have no tool(s) or framework for guiding their actions. Change is too hard, too expensive, and takes too long, and the rate of change, its magnitude, and its unpredictability are too great to make leading change by intuition, gut feel, or hairs on the back of the neck a consistent and effective approach.

What I try to provide in this book is a simple but powerful framework and set of tools. However, if you don’t like them, you won’t hurt my feelings (plus you already bought the book so the royalty payment has been made). Still, my experience and research suggest that you should develop a point of view, a model, a theory, and some practical tools based on someone else’s work or on your own research and experience, and that without such you are unlikely to consistently lead successful change.

5. Master Through Deliberate Practice

Scholars who have studied high performers in sports, music, medicine, and other professions have discovered that becoming highly proficient requires deliberate practice. Deliberate practice has four main ingredients:

  • Repetition—To become good at anything, including leading change, repetition is required. No one reaches expert proficiency the first time they try something. Even when someone does relatively well at first, there is a reason we call it “beginner’s luck.”
  • Concentration—You do not improve by mindlessly repeating certain behaviors. You have to concentrate on what you are doing, how it feels, what happens as a consequence of your efforts, and so on. You have to think about what you are doing.
  • Stretching—In addition to thinking about what you are doing, you have to try to stretch your performance, increase your effectiveness, and elevate your efficiency as you practice.
  • Feedback—Despite all the good that repetition, concentration, and stretching provide, in order to make the necessary adjustments for enhanced future performance, we need feedback.

So how do these four principles relate to leading change? Relative to repetition, the nice thing about implementing change is that it our times are dynamic enough that there are literally scores of small opportunities to practice specific behaviors in leading change. Take advantage of them. However, you have to think about each of these and pay attention to what is happening with you and others as you execute these behaviors. With each small opportunity to understand and overcome someone’s resistance to change, reward someone’s early change efforts, and so on, you should try to stretch, improve, and have more consistency in your efforts. And, finally, as you repeat, concentrate, and stretch, you have to make sure you look out for, invite, seek, and otherwise get feedback along the way. The consequences of not leading change effectively today and in the future are too grave to wait until the end and rely on the ultimate feedback of overall success or failure to guide your future efforts.

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 not becoming a change master and the benefits of being among the best are just too great to ignore.

6. Remember, Good May Not Be Good Enough

Given the speed, magnitude, and unpredictability of change today and in the future, we may soon have to have “safe harbor” declarations that past leading change performance is no guarantee of future performance. 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. Good today may not be good enough for tomorrow. Therefore, past success, even for a given individual manager, may not a good predictor of future performance when it comes to leading change. However, excellent deliberate practice today may be a good predictor that the person’s level of proficiency will improve enough to meet the rising demands and deliver change success tomorrow.

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