There are two kinds of change – incremental and discontinuous – that are taking place simultaneously and constantly in today’s business organizations. Incremental change is the process of continuous improvement – what the Japanese refer to as “kaizen.” Discontinuous change is the kind of large-scale transformation that turns organizations inside out and upside down.
Incremental change fits the Newtonian framework of a linear, progressive and predictable world. There is an unmistakable logic behind incremental change that makes it easy to communicate and relatively easy for people to adopt because it uses current practices as a baseline for the systematic improvement of a product, service or system. And we human beings like that. We can base our future success on our past performance.
But much of the change our organizations are facing today is not incremental. It is discontinuous. And if leading incremental change can be compared to encouraging a group of joggers to gradually pick up the pace, then leading discontinuous change is like encouraging those same joggers to leap off a cliff and build their parachutes on the way down.
Discontinuous change – restructuring, re-engineering, transformation, etc. – challenges our most deeply held beliefs about the past. It confronts the entire organization with the possibility that the very roles, actions and attitudes that were most responsible for past success will be insufficient, and perhaps even detrimental, in the future.
That concept is harder to communicate and much harder for people to adopt. We don’t like to contemplate letting go of the skills and behaviours that “got us here.” That’s understandable because that’s basic human psychology – it’s just not an attitude that helps an enterprise move forward.
One of the greatest challenges for a leader who wants his or her team to thrive in changing times is to identify those practices and attitudes that need to be eliminated in order to more quickly adopt new behaviours. Here are five key questions that you should ask your team members to consider:
1. What do we do best? (What skills, abilities, and attitudes are we most proud of?)
2. Which of these current skills, abilities, and attitudes will continue to make us successful in the future?
3. What do we need to unlearn? (Which skills are becoming obsolete? What practices – attitudes, behaviours, work routines, etc. – that worked for us in the past may be a detriment in the future?)
4. How does our competence stop us from doing things differently? (Where are the “comfort zones” we’re most reluctant to leave?)
5. What new skills do we need to learn to stay valuable to the organization?
Building a culture that is comfortable with – even aggressive about – innovation, risk, and change, means that everyone needs to embrace the process of continuous learning, unlearning, and relearning that is essential to personal and organizational success.
As the leader, you can begin by identifying those behaviours and attitudes that you personally need to unlearn. Then address the topic openly: Talk candidly about your problems with letting go of the past, empathize with the feelings of awkwardness that comes with leaving the “comfort zone,” and massage damaged egos by applauding all efforts that your team members make.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.