My youngest is back in New Zealand after a world tour (which I will leave to her blog) and has been catching up with school friends before heading to university. In catching up with their news she found that her old school is about to make electronic tablets/iPads mandatory for students. The ensuing debate on whether this is fair or not got us into the topics of evolution, technology, personal expectations, priorities and choices and inevitably dinosaurs.
Let me explain how this relates to change and leading change.
Today buying an iPad or other tablet may be seen as an expensive student tool. When I was a kid I remember calculators being mandated. In those days they were expensive too. Many people objected to the cost. Anyone object now? Remember when mobile phones were too expensive to give to your kids? See a kid without one now?
As years role on things change and along with them our expectations of what is normal. Once something has become normal nobody questions it. But at some point that thing is unusual. Somewhere between the two is a time when the change horizon for normal meets the reality field of unusual and we have a short period of conflict between the two. Right now at her old school parents, pupils and teachers are in the middle of the battle between the two perspectives which will go on until more and more schools see that the technological advantages should be adopted and it gradually becomes unusual to not have an tablet policy than to have one.
When it comes to the introduction of new ideas into the workplace you face the same challenge. People look at the new idea and compare it to normal. Nobody else is doing it and it’s unusual. Nobody has ever heard of it and it’s highly unusual. And the response to that change is likely to be in proportion to how unusual it is in the minds of that community.
Safe change means putting in place something that everyone else is doing. This probably accounts for fads in the Business, IT and HR communities. Everyone else is outsourcing, so we should outsource. Everyone else is buying xxx software then we should buy it. Everyone is using that Leadership model or that survey then we should do it. Safe change minimizes risk because people accept it as normal (their last business had it, their friends employers had it, or they’ve seen it in the papers for the last few years).
But safe change is just survival. You can be sure that the last school to adopt tablets will be five years behind other schools in terms of results. Safe change isn’t change, it’s just keeping up. And just keeping up is just holding back extinction for a few more years. Like a dinosaur running ahead of a tsunami, caused by the meteor close behind.
Being at the front of the change horizon means its harder to get employees to accept the unusual. It’s riskier because you are at the front of the change horizon and that means the battle between normal and unusual is taking place in your organisation. For many that is too big a risk, it’s too much effort and they would rather sit further back in the pack so its easy.
Those at the front, or aspiring to be at the front need to change the conversation so that it’s no longer a conflict between normal and unusual; because conflicts have casualties. To change the conversation I believe that you stop talking to your people about accepting change and instead teach them that unusual is normal. That evolution is what we do. It’s what humans have always done and that embracing changing technology is normal and has been from the invention of the wheel, to sails, to steam, the petrol engine, rocket power, moon landings, smartphones, and tablets.
Those whose mindset can embrace evolution will evolve and history has shown us that the evolvers reach the top of the pyramid at some point. While those that don’t evolve, arguing for ‘stability’, shouting that we need to keep things as they’ve always been, that these ‘new things aren’t necessary’ and that ‘a pencil was fine in my day’ will gradually go the way of the things that that they stubbornly hold on to.
Most interestingly whole cultures follow this pattern too. From the Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution and beyond changes happened because groups of people embraced the possibilities together. The more that embraced the change the more it became normal, became cultural. So the lessons of evolution and history can apply to any culture and that includes yours; your organisations
As a leader culture is your domain. Are you engaging your people in unusual being normal or are you holding tight to your current reality where it’s safer?
P.s I wrote this on an iPad!