We live in a world of constant change. Markets shift with the wind. New technology always threatens the old ways of doing things. New competitors consistently compete for a slice of the market share pie. And at the end of the day, customers shift purchasing decisions.
Given these factors, organizations must stay ahead of the curve or they will cease to exist. Look at the struggles of certain industries. The recording industry swept aside the rise of digital music and now faces difficult circumstances around a lack of record sales. Its response faces an uphill climb, even with new innovations like streaming providing potential answers to the problem.
Compare the record industry to book publishing; while both faced a decline in its traditional sales, Amazon jumped ahead of the curve, releasing the Kindle and providing an electronic marketplace long before book piracy could develop in our cultural milieu.
A Cost-First Approach to Change
Change, however, runs deeper than developing a new product or implementing a new technology. In fact, many people making decisions in organizations use finance and economics as the framework for the choices made. What can be done to influence the bottom line in a positive manner? This cost-first mentality can be detrimental to the workplace, especially if jobs are on the line, whether through technology replacing workers or outright layoffs.
Cost-first decision-making tends to lead organizations down the road of technical change, a process meant to increase the output from the same amount of inputs. This process could mean adding a new project management system; it might include consolidating departments to increase workload on each employee. Most often when a serious problem arises in the marketplace, one that may threaten the long-term viability of an organization, technical change becomes the method of addressing the problem.
While technical change can lead to new innovations and a higher level of buoyancy in the marketplace, it is also a Band-Aid for the problem. The second the market shifts again, more change must occur, again to the detriment of your workforce.
One Possible Alternative Approach to Change
What if there was another way toward change? What if leaders addressed change systematically throughout the organization, diving into the fabric of its culture to address change and build a stronger and more resilient company?
As Ronald Heifetz has argued in his book Leadership without Easy Answers, the answer to this question could reside in the concept of adaptive change. Adaptive change addresses the hearts and minds of employees. It’s a much more difficult process. Adaptive change asks the deeper questions around an organization. Why are we doing this? Where do we want to go? What are the attitudes, values, and behaviors that permeate our work culture? Are they the right? Do these attitudes and beliefs need to shift for us to gain a sense of shared identity?
Adaptive change is scary and painful. Many people resist because it can sometimes shift a company greatly, to the point of altering the entire business model. But the success of such a process comes in the form of a healthy, sustainable culture that can more capably address the roller coaster of the external marketplace.
While adaptive change offers an alternative to technical change, an interdisciplinary model provides the most textured approach. Psychologists, sociologists, theologians, anthropologists, philosophers among many other disciplines provide lenses for understanding culture. In truth, the difficulty of shifting culture requires such a layered approach because change shifts at a glacial pace. An individual will tend toward adapting to the current culture, rather than an entire organization tending toward adopting the culture of one new person.
The role of leadership in cultural change engagement is critical. The organization selects the leader to provide authority and maintain equilibrium. When change must happen, the equilibrium shifts. An interdisciplinary toolkit allows the leader to keep the pulse of the organization and begin the process.
Change as a Computer
Think of these ideas like an old computer — one you’ve been using for a few years. The technology feels like yesterday’s news. Applications take more time to open; the video card never seems to want to play nice. It seems — if buying a new computer is off the table — the best solution to the problem is to upgrade RAM and the video card. You should get more speed and a higher quality image. Such a decision would be technical change.
Interdisciplinary change, however, requires a bigger process. In truth, you would need to replace the entire motherboard. The external shell of the computer will look the same but everything performing underneath the surface will be new.
Cultural change is a long process for an organization, but the journey is worth it.
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