It was the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus who apparently first said “The only thing that is constant is change.” He has many successors. “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished” was Ben Franklin’s contribution. Darwin—of course—chipped in with “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” Winston Churchill got in on the act: “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.”

Leaders have been mulling over the importance of change since Heraclitus' time. Image: Heraclitus: Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. : CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Leaders have been mulling over the importance of change since Heraclitus’ time. Image: Heraclitus: Line engraving. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. See page for author: CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

More recently, business author Alan Deutschman coined the phrase “Change or Die,” which might be seen as the underlying philosophy of business strategists, personal fitness instructors and elected officials everywhere.

Have we taken all this good advice to heart? Despite its apparent necessity, we can certainly find it hard to change. Individually and collectively. It seems somewhat paradoxical. If change is essential for our survival, why don’t we do it automatically? Like breathing. Perhaps it’s that the evolution metaphor is just overplayed. After all, the evolution of the species happens over millions of years, not each year or business cycle.

Individually, some personal change can evoke fears, the threat of unknown dangers. The phrase “frightened stiff” sums it up as we become rigid and uncooperative, sensing the worst of consequences. We need to find trust and show courage to get there. Even when we readily accept that the change is necessary and would be good for us, we can sometimes lack the self-discipline to carry it through. Personal change takes effort. Like using my gym membership in February.

Collectively, organizational change can also be very difficult. Organizations are composed of many individuals, thus multiplying those personal objections. Adding the overlay of group identity and ‘politics’ further complicates matters. The perceived wisdom is that organizational change programs usually fail. The generally accepted figure is 70 percent.

However, I’m more optimistic as that’s not been my experience. Sure we must manage change properly—pay attention to the right things, understand and counter the objections, and provide clear responsibility and accountability for success—but complex, transformational change can be accomplished. There are some useful methodologies to draw upon to help. Many organizations have successfully mastered change—some many times over. I would argue that, in general, organizations are getting better at implementing change, which helps to explain why there is so much of it.

The biggest risk for organizations is not in implementing change,
but in not doing so.

For me, the biggest risk for organizations is not in implementing change, but in not doing so. Or putting it off until it’s urgent. Why does this happen? I’ve seen that organizations can become ‘ultra-stable,’ constantly making slight modifications that everyone can live with to remain, essentially, in the same place. So real change has then to take place against the backdrop of an emergency, the ‘burning platform,’ without adequate time to consider the alternatives. Panic, frustration and conflict ensue.

As my friend Peter Fuda would say, a burning ambition makes a much more effective catalyst for change than a burning platform. We must anticipate the need for change, sometimes two or three years ahead, skillfully evaluate the ways to achieve it, frame it in the form of an ambition, and then over a period of time implement the change effectively to engender support and engagement. Easy really… well, of course not, but to finish with another quote: “The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”

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