Stop Talking About Change. Start Talking About Adaptation!

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Dec 4, 2017

Let’s talk about change for a moment. Think of yourself. Think of any groups or organizations (including family) in which you are involved. Now, imagine I come to you and say, “I want to talk to you about some changes our organization has decided to make” or, “I want to talk to you about some changes you need to make.”

Let that sink in for a moment. Okay, how do you feel? Raise your hand if you feel excited, pumped up or optimistic about the wonderful opportunities awaiting you.

What? I don’t see a lot of hands raised, do you? Are you surprised?

When is the last time someone approached you with “changes we are going to make” and then proceeded to tell you things that you considered to be good news? They rarely use the “C word” to tell you good news. Since this word has such negative associations (fear and loss) why do we continue to use it?

Change Is the Only Constant

Most leaders are in the change business. Since the only constant is change, how can we not be in the change business? We are forced to implement changes for the survival of our organizations. The thing is, the pace of change keeps increasing. Each year it seems to get faster than the year before. You may have the dominant technology. brand or process today with a huge competitive edge. Tomorrow it could be obsolete or rapidly moving that way, replaced by something new that you did not see coming. This means that leaders must “make changes” to be effective.

Maybe we are approaching it the wrong way.

By the time most organizational leaders decide on the changes they want to make, many of the following get in the way of favorable results:

  • It appears sudden and extreme to the people impacted.
  • It did not include input, discussion or collaboration with the people impacted.
  • The effectiveness of the proposed changes appear questionable to the people impacted.
  • It is communicated in a way that runs afoul of human psychology and initiates people’s survival instincts (fight or flight reaction).
  • The word change is front and center in the communications, diminishing trust and engagement.

A Flexible, Adaptive Approach

The traditional approach to change involves organizational leaders making change-related decisions with limited collaboration with the people affected. Then, the affected parties are simply informed about the changes that will occur (often in an impersonal, mass communication manner). This usually goes over like a “lead balloon.”

If competent, effective leaders are required to bring about change, how can they alter their approach to get both high engagement and better results than the traditional approach to change? The answer is to develop an adaptive, “learning organization.”

This term refers to an organization that facilitates the input and learning of its members and continuously improves itself as a result. This means investing time and resources to help employees gradually shift how they think and behave to be part of the change process.

Here are some elements of this approach:

  • The leaders realize that every employee is a key source of information, ideas and energy vital to the health of the organization. They are the eyes and ears. They receive information on the front lines from customers and can hear the faintest hints of threats and opportunities which the leaders could not possibly detect on their own.
  • The leaders shift their mindset from the traditional “command and control” view and embrace the view that the “combined wisdom of the many” (entire workforce, including leaders) is greater than the leaders alone. Employees are encouraged and rewarded for quickly sharing information with the leaders; even when it is negative, conflicts with the leaders’ opinions, is inconvenient or unpopular.
  • The leaders are armed with more timely and accurate information on a regular basis. They can make better decisions and respond quicker to threats and opportunities.
  • When the leaders are considering making adaptations or improvements (not changes) based on the information from employees, they openly discuss their thoughts with the employees (or representatives) so that ideas and concerns from the employees can be included. This results in better decisions and satisfies the psychological desire humans have to be involved in decisions that impact them. Now we have embedded employee ownership and engagement into the adaptations.
  • When the actual implementation of the adaptions takes place, there are consistent inputs from the employees on the impact. Unintended consequences are almost 100% likely. Quick, adaptive modifications are made as a result. The organization is now deliberately developing a culture that is flexible, constantly learning and adaptive.

First Steps

I believe that one of the first steps is to remove the word “change” from the organizational vocabulary. Research has shown that language is critically important. It is the building block of how we think and interpret the world and thus our emotional response.

Another step is to think in terms of continuous small, adaptive steps rather than sudden major changes. When we develop an adaptive, learning culture that is consistently tuned in and responsive, the need for sudden change greatly diminishes. Some of the sudden changes that organizations make are akin to trying to lose 100 lbs. by starvation or some other extreme measures. We know better than that, don’t we?

One other thing to start talking about: Some organizations have people who are specifically involved in organizational “change efforts.” They serve a vital purpose and demonstrate a positive intention by management. Perhaps the “C” word should be removed from their titles and replaced with “Adaptation,” “Improvement” or something that is more positive and appropriate. After all, are you really motivated to change or are you motivated to adapt or improve?

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