We can look at a list of time-honored companies to realize this is true. Apple, Cadbury, Lego and McDonald’s all embraced change as the engine of their ongoing success. We can also look at the wasteland of companies that failed to change, among them Blockbuster, Kodak, RadioShack and Yahoo. Why do some companies foresee the need for change and adapt while others don’t?
To understand the connection between change and success, it’s helpful to define change. In a broad sense, change is a reorientation from a current to a new state. This reorientation comes in different shapes based on its size and level of anticipation. Naming the change we’re dealing with helps lead it effectively. These types of change include:
Tuning: Incremental and anticipated, these are small tweaks we make to continually improve. They include upgrading software or teaching an employee a new skill.
Adaptation: Incremental and unplanned, these are small course corrections we make in response to an unplanned event. Examples include adding a new product feature to satisfy a customer request or hiring another employee to meet increased demand.
Reorientation: Big and anticipated, these are strategic projects that are contiguous, align with established values and rolled out over time. Such changes include organizational restructures and system changes — like a move to a new payroll system.
Re-creation: Big and unplanned, these changes are radical and disruptive. They’re thrust upon an organization by outside or unforeseen forces and often threaten the existence of the organization. Such changes include a pandemic or the introduction of a disruptive technology like video streaming.
Since all change involves people, leaders committed to putting people first must accurately name the change and prepare for the level of disruption, emotional fallout and human effects that follow.
If, for example, you upgrade to the next version of Microsoft Office, that would be a tuning change. This can be planned and handled quickly and easily. You might craft a few communications, notify people of the timeline and send out video tutorials that teach people about new features.
In contrast, if your CEO steps down with no warning, this would be a re-creation change. You would need to brace for significant effects and allow plenty of space and time to help people recalibrate to the wide range of emotional, structural and systemic changes that follow. Instead of emailing an announcement, you might hold a series of town hall-style meetings where people can express their concerns. You might assemble a cross-functional team to build out a year-long re-organization and communication strategy. You might offer mental health coaching to help people cope with uncertainty. You might adjust accountabilities as priorities shift. Above all, you might tap into the grapevine chatter, send surveys and hold focus groups to track culture and morale. This will allow you to implement targeted interventions on the fly should things go awry.
Effectively diagnosing and leading change is no small feat. There’s a reason most big changes fail. These changes require high levels of intellectual, emotional and behavioral leadership skills. These skills are required now more than ever as such drivers of change as culture, the economy, employee mindsets, environment, marketplace, politics, regulations and technology outpace any other time in history.
To ensure our skills are sharp, we must honestly assess whether they need refining. Ask yourself and your boss, peers and team members the following:
Can I synthesize information well, zero in on what’s most important and make well-reasoned decisions based on facts?
Do I know how to convey a sense of urgency and meaning to help people connect emotionally to change?
Can I articulate a clear vision of the future?
Do I communicate verbally, in writing and through body language clearly and consistently?
Do I celebrate small wins to give people a sense of progress during long change processes?
Do I model the behaviors and attitudes I expect to see in my team members?
If any person answers no to any of these questions, consider enrolling in executive coaching, reading current leadership books or finding a mentor. If we don’t get better by chance, but by change, there’s no better place to start than with ourselves.