Look outside and test the temperature. Financial austerity lingers after the most major global economic crisis since World War II; shock political outcomes have created Brexit and a Trump presidency; there are 2.6 billion smartphone users, and 6.1bn (80 per cent of the world’s population) predicted to have them by 2020; 65 million refugees are fleeing from their strife torn homelands, an increase from 19.2 million in 2005; and acts of brutal terrorism have put fear onto the beaches of Egypt and into the heart of cities as far apart as Beirut, Baghdad, Istanbul, London, Manchester, Mumbai, Sydney, Paris, and Barcelona.
In this turning and turbulent world, such unpredictable, unstable, interconnected and dynamic conditions change the very nature of change.
First and foremost, change moves from being a one off programme that can be initiated, implemented, and then put aside as you return to a new stability; to an ongoing changing phenomenon, in which survival requires you to be in a continual state of adaptation to new contexts. For sure there will still be a need for set piece change, such as an acquisition, a new brand launch, or an IT system change. Yet the emphasis has now shifted from viewing change as an episode to acknowledging it is an endemic phenomenon. This switch from change to changing, from noun to gerund, places a high premium on leaders who can build change capability in their institutions and foster it as an ongoing emergent process. The primary task of top leaders in today’s unpredictable world is not to come up with the definitive grand plan for the future, but to create in society the capacity to be constantly in innovation and adjustment, as today’s solution can look quickly outmoded.
Second, it is clear that the world is increasingly a globally interconnected place, in which change no longer lies within your personal control. Be it a result of social media, technology innovation, global migration or geopolitical union (or uncoupling as in Brexit), it is far less easy today to isolate causality for an event to just one location. You try to pull up the plant yet see that its roots are extensively connected to its neighbouring beds. Systemic and complex issues require a commensurate type of response. In such a world, the leadership of change requires a willingness to collaborate across traditional boundaries and to see the world as a connected ecosystem, underpinned by a deep capacity to hold an appreciation for the whole of existence over the selective promotion of certain beliefs or interests.
Finally, the new disruptive nature of change sharpens our attention to its process and its consequence. Given the increasingly high cost of failing to adapt to today’s changing context – including our planet’s very survival – I believe it’s no longer good enough for leaders to bring about change without equal consideration for how to implement it. Too often I see leaders only attend to what has to be done, without any consideration for how to bring this about. I will go even further and say it is irresponsible to be a leader today if you are not prepared to examine and adapt your own response to these changing contexts. How you do change fundamentally determines where you end up.
So, change is now ongoing, endemic and not directly controllable. As the price tag for failure becomes ever more expensive, leadership is the essential capability. I have repeatedly shown through my own research that high quality leadership is the single biggest determinant of successful change outcomes. Yet while the need to master it rises in importance, we are also repeatedly reminded that most change efforts do in fact fail as the inherent difficulties faced in their implementation remain. Somehow, we are not learning from the lessons of experience. Now, more than ever, is the time to rectify that.
About the author
Deborah Rowland (deborahrowland.com) has led change in major global organizations including Shell, Gucci, BBC Worldwide and PepsiCo where she was Vice President of Organizational & Management Development. Her 2017 book, Still Moving, is based on groundbreaking research into the realities of managing change.
This is an excerpt from Strategy@Work, a Brightline and Thinkers50 collaboration bringing together the very best thinking and insights in the field of strategy and beyond.