One of the major reasons that interventions, training and change processes don’t work as effectively as we would like them to, is that we fail to take the time to create the necessary framework of understanding at the start of these processes. Simply put, we do not understand the nature of change itself. Too often we expend our energies trying to make numerous small changes. In doing so, we expend great energy, and continually find ourselves frustrated by forces pushing against us.
The solution, I believe is quite simple (conceptually, anyway). I’d suggest we focus more on helping people understand change itself – this may take a lot of energy, and time, but the benefit will be to develop people who actually are not just able to change, but keen and willing to do so, too.
We need to help people understand the great tectonic movements of history that we perceive as change. The earth is always (literally) moving under our feet. Besides the spinning that gives us a great sunrise (why do we still insist on calling it that, when we’ve known for 500 years that the sun doesn’t rise? Its tough to get all romantic about a great “earth turn”, though, isn’t it?), the earth actually moves. Its on great big plates that move slowly apart or together (depending on where you live). We don’t feel this movement, but every now and again, the pressure that builds up over years and even centuries finally reaches a critical moment, and some major shake happens. We call this an earthquake, and volcanoes can also fire up. Its fierce, its sharp, and its short lived. But it changes the landscape, and rattles those who happen to live through it. These quakes are largely unpredictable, yet they are predictably unpredictable. We know they will happen, and MUST happen. Yet, we’re almost always surprised when they do.
History has a similar pattern – with slow, almost imperceptible pressure building up, and then releasing suddenly. Think of how winter often arrives: a slow decrease in average daily temperatures, almost unnoticeable – and then suddenly one day, a massive cold blast of wind comes through, and a dramatic change of seasons occurs. We are used to the cycle of seasons that bring annual change. We are slightly more aware of the cycles of generations, lasting about 20 years, bringing changed attitudes and cultural norms. But the longer cycles of historical change often leave us reeling. I think we must change this. We need actual training on the short, medium and long term cycles of history. Personally, I’ve devoted nearly a decade of my life to this, and trust that the resources I produce are helpful for people trying to make sense of it all. I don’t claim to have all the answers. When the quakes come, new lands emerge and old ones disappear, and we have to rechart the new territory. No-one has maps. But in this landscape, the skill of mapmaking (or frameworking as we call it) is the most valuable. That’s what I mean by helping our people to accept change as normal, and understand the nature of historical movements.
We currently live at the end of a 500 year cycle, bringing the ‘modern era’ to an end. The grand shifts of history have seen a prehistoric world, an ancient world, a medieval world and a modern world all now being swept up in an emerging postmodern world. And the problem in most organisations is that we’re not willing to accept this change. We’re not willing to allow the organisation of the old era to die, and allow a new organisation to emerge with this new era. We like the old familiar ways. We are comfortable with the world as we knew it, and are unwilling to give it up for something new and unknown. We’re not prepared to let it go, to let it die, and to face a radical new future. The point is, if you have a new world, you need a new organisation. You have a new world!
The easiest way to fail at the start of this new era is to simply attempt to improve on your past successes. Small, incremental changes are no longer effective. Right now, the degree of change in the world requires nothing less than radical, revolutionary changes. To be conservative today is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us. We need repeated change, not just once, but continuously for the foreseeable future. It’s not just that the world is changing. Change itself has changed. Leaders of the future must not focus on helping their people to make small changes – rather our focus should be on helping people to change their attitude to change.