Ironically, the truism that change is the only constant, is thousands of years old. It predates the Colosseum, the founding of the United States, and the world’s oldest business.¹ Change is a fact of life.
Although change is constant, we have a love-hate relationship with it.
Some change we love: A new friend, a wedding, or welcoming a child into the world. All change, and all entered into the ‘happy’ side of the ledger. Then there’s the change we don’t like.
Humans are creatures of habit, and our habit is to worry about that change. We’re hard-wired to do it. Change represents a fear of the unknown, a loss of control, a loss of status, or extra effort. It exposes a potential lack of competence or loss of face.
It’s the monster hiding under the bed.
Change does not equal change management.
Change Management is consulting-speak for the programmatic organizational propaganda that pulls through a big initiative. It’s the communication plan, the wrangling of stakeholders, rollout dates, and identifying change champions.
If you’ve invited McKinsey into the building, or you’re rolling out an ERP system, change management seems like a reasonable safeguard on your investment, but it’s not change.
Change is the swirl of life, and of progress.
For example, the great reset has brought about a sweeping rethink in people’s attitudes to work, and the regular Kool-Aid doesn’t taste as sweet.
This new attitude makes the leader’s role, not one of change management, but of leading through change.
If human nature is an immovable object, change is an unstoppable force.
Like it or not, change is winning. That’s why you’re reading this on a screen and not paper. It’s why millions switched to remote work and won’t go back. It’s why automation beats stagnation.
Change is how businesses compete; we just call it innovation.
That’s the good kind of change. It’s the force that brought us contactless payments, smart phones, and AI. It’s the reinvention of process in your business or the drive to digital transformation. Without it, we would still be writing checks, making phone calls through a copper wire, or counting with an abacus.
But it never feels easy.
We regularly ask our clients “what causes these tangles?” What causes the swirl of change? — the days where things don't go in a straight line. Where there's a sudden rock, hurled from stage left; when things go awry.
The answer: It’s the pile-on of too many projects competing for too few resources, compounded by changing priorities, and short-term decisions. It’s our built-in need to add stuff to the list, not take things away.
The larger the company, the softer the focus. Biting off too much to comfortably chew becomes the norm.
Change is inevitable.
It’s vital to the continuation of your company, but we get stressed when there is too much of it. The great reset has allowed people a moment to re-examine the role their work (and all that change) has in their lives.
Now leaders have a choice about what to do about change.
For leaders caught between the immovable object and unstoppable force, it’s time to rethink how we lead through change.
Imagine innovation as a stream that moves the business forward. It’s fine when the stream is smooth, and the flow is steady. Now see change as a bubbling, swirling, roiling pool of water. The bubbles, swirls, and roils are adverse change: The month-long preparation for a company kickoff with a last-minute change of direction from the CEO. The new marketing positioning and Ad campaign, pipped to market by the competition. The key employee that suddenly quits.
It’s all too much. A tangle in your best-laid plans. A knot in the middle of your transformation.
If we didn’t have change, we wouldn’t need leadership. We could just get by with good, old-fashioned, plain talkin’ management.
Leading through change is the skill of balancing the negative stress of change — especially in a new, distributed work environment — with the positive benefit that transformation brings.
Frequent change is not a comfortable place. It’s stressful. Exhausting.
Outcomes can help us with the balance of change. For leaders, they help us keep an eye on the prize. For teams, they’re a way of navigating through change.
Outcomes are why we come to work. They’re the success stories. The new product launch, the successful end of a quarter, or the onboarding of a new teammate. Successful outcomes keep us moving forward, and they allow us to innovate and be creative along the way.
Jeff Bezos gives us an excellent example of outcome thinking. When asked, “what does the future look like?” he replied, “I don’t know. But that’s the wrong question to ask — a better question is what won’t change in the future.”
“And [talking about Amazon] I know that customers will always want wider selection, cheaper prices, and faster delivery.”
“That won’t change. We can place bets around that. We can invest around that.”
That is a striking example of outcome-thinking — a way of navigating through change and keeping an eye on the big picture.
An outcome is something that [blank] will always want. Where [blank] is your customer, the business, or another stakeholder. It’s a translation of a North Star that is always visible. Remember, you can only see stars part of the time — on a clear night. That’s the problem with North Stars in business. It’s difficult to translate your day-to-day activities into that strategy or North Star.
So it goes with goal-setting. Most goal-setting is built around solving a problem. That’s worthwhile, but who is to say you are solving for the right problem? That’s where outcomes come in.
An evergreen outcome — like managing the cost down in your call center — is something you will always be solving problems for. It’s more powerful when paired with other evergreen outcomes — like putting a smile on every customers’ face.
These outcomes allow you to line up work and teams against them. Teams can collectively set goals against them and collaborate.
In a hybrid world or distributed organization, they serve as an alignment aid to ensure that everyone is working, semi-autonomously together, towards the same North Star.
¹ Which is a Japanese construction company, Kong Gumi — established in 578.