26 October 2017

Challenging the Fear and Fatigue of Change

According to Lewis E Platt, Hewlett-Packard chairman and CEO and champion of innovation culture, ‘You must anticipate that whatever made you successful in the past won’t in the future.’ Platt’s 1994 speech gave business leaders everywhere inspiration for guiding their organisations in uncertain times. Such basic advice could have been interpreted as flippant were it not for the damning industrial context of many once successful companies, including HP’s major competitors, undermining their own competitive vitality by clinging to outmoded strategies long past their use-by date.

The modern nature of work is becoming increasingly decentralised and interdependent. As a direct consequence companies are having the fight-or-flight realisation that forging strong culture has less to do with data-centric engagement and ‘casting the net’ wider, and everything to do with going deeper into people’s lives.

If the literal billions of dollars in failed culture and innovation programs tell us anything, it’s this—something is systemically wrong with the way organisations approach change. Notwithstanding this huge failure, human beings are creatures of habit and unless something diabolical happens, we keep going round in circles chasing our tails, making the same mistakes over and over.

Survival demands that we adopt an outside-in view, and invest in new and accelerated leadership and learning models that prioritise engagement with employees and stakeholders above shareholder returns.

As the lines increasingly blur between work and life purpose, the notion that we can confine change to a pre-determined set of ideals or outcomes is naïve and avoidant of our responsibility to embrace a co-designed and inclusive business model. Is the solution a more experimental environment where employees and stakeholders can realise progress faster? What if I told you no quick fix or formula exists to getting change right?

There is no silver bullet.

Overcoming the fear and fatigue of change is a long game that is directly proportional to how human an organisation is prepared to be. It requires no less than complete transparency and collaboration at all levels, and commitment to welcoming the full expression of the human condition, both shadow and light. Employees and customers alike must be authentically engaged and an essential part of the process in order to feel a legitimate connection and sense of ownership in the design of culture and its success.

Reimagining Enterprise

Knowledge, power, and productive capability is now more dispersed than at any other time in our history—a world where value creation is fast, fluid, and persistently disruptive. It presents us with an invitation to be more and to reimagine culture as a movement—a self-perpetuating force for excitement, ideas, communication and growth. 

In the Foreword of my book, Emergent my friend and colleague, Ashley Howden, states that ‘many leaders are also conscious of change fatigue and use this as an excuse to not take their companies into unchartered, or lesser known, waters. This is certainly worthy of due attention but its precursor state—ambiguity fatigue—is also a toxin. In the right dosage, it’s crucial in order to allow the experimentation and adoption of new ideas. Too much and everyone begins to lose direction and faith. But by bringing your stakeholders and customers into the conversation, which is only possible through a leader’s admission that they, and their teams, don’t hold all the answers, co-ownership of the solution becomes possible. This attitude of co-creation is the active ingredient in the antidote for each endemic malaise the threatened company faces—leadership isolation, groupthink and stakeholders’ ambiguity fatigue. Co-creation is the route to a sustainable culture of innovation. Emergent, at its simplest, is a template for the adoption and installation of co-creation.’

Meanwhile, a quietly influential conscious collective is rising—a vibrant ecosystem that challenges the ruthless pursuit of profit and strategies to maximise shareholder returns, and mobilises as an interdependent force for social consciousness, authenticity and mutual benefit. I call this collective groundswell the ‘Emergent’, and it highlights that the future of enterprise innovation will be largely dependent on companies learning to co-design solutions to complex problems with their stakeholders. The Emergent comprise conscious leaders, innovators, provocateurs and disruptors, who exist to create every form of value and alignment possible—social, emotional and financial.

Changing capitalism

A great example of the Emergent is the B Corp movement, which brings together a community of incredible people doing extraordinary work. B Corp groups for-profit companies certified by the non-profit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, legal accountability and public transparency. More than 2000 certified B Corps from 42 countries and over 120 industries are working together toward a single unifying goal: to drive systemic change and redefine success in business. They want to mobilise as a force for good.

At the 2016 Net Impact Conference in Philadelphia, Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B Lab, presented an inspiring exposé about the evolution of capital, saying: If we can harness the latent power of markets…of business, of capitalism—to a higher purpose than maximising shareholder value, we can unleash one of the most powerful manmade forces ever created…jobs with dignity and purpose, restore the environment, create pathways out of poverty, and reduce inequality.

Along with the approximately 2000 B Corp certified companies worldwide with higher purpose at their core, an additional 50,000 have used the B Impact Assessment—a free tool provided by B Lab to measure the company’s impact and offer help with making improvements. With only 900 registered B Corps in 2014, what’s certain is an exponential shift is occurring. Gilbert went on to suggest that shifts are occurring beneath the surface, and that sometimes these are so incremental you can hardly feel them. And yet they are powerful enough to disrupt the status quo and change the world as we know it. As more companies seek to create value and benefit across the vast spectrum of stakeholders and the communities in which they do business—Gilbert argues we are starting to see a change in capitalism’s form.

Learning how to accelerate change and mobilise as a positive force in society has become an essential prerequisite in business.

The Paradox of Protectionism

In the face of rapid change, organisations react and defend, or they adapt and thrive. There is no middle ground. Those who ignore the signs will progressively decline into obsolescence, unable to escape the gravity of a dying institutional model that can no longer sustain innovation because it is devoid of the vital tenets of conscious leadership and co-ownership. Abandoning kneejerk, reactive, quick-fix and protectionist strategies in place of a holistic worldview and interdependent way of working is a crucial step in an organisation’s conscious evolution towards a co-created business model.

The following 5 questions will help reveal where your organisation is on its change trajectory, and opportunities for growth:

  1. What business are you really in?
  2. How well is your organisation prevailing in this climate of accelerating change?
  3. Is there a complex social issue that intersects with your business?
  4. How well positioned are you to benefit from the opportunities change is bringing?
  5. How can you create more impact in more places and peoples lives, more completely?

If you’re a leader who wants to start being recognised as someone who makes a difference, then start by calling ‘BS’ on the outmoded and soul-sucking practices that are still so prevalent in the workplace. Become a beacon of innovation and inspiration. Have honest conversations. Be real and compassionate. Learn to sense your environment and lead your people with empathy. Anything less is subscribing to a manufactured ideal of culture that isn’t real or sustainable.

Until next time, stay awesome!

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