By Guest Contributor Neil Usher
An overview of many of the ideas in Part 1 of Elemental Change by Neil Usher, drawing the conclusion that we are all change professionals first.
CHANGE IS MESSY, BUT THEN AGAIN SO IS LIFE
In our professional meanderings we often leave delivering change to others. Those who have chosen the literal path of ‘change’ as a career. Downstream, we plug in their services, constrain their scope, provide the narrowest possible inputs to their expected activity and stipulate unrealistically clear outputs. As though they will be acting alone. As though they are the only determinant of their success. We do the business stuff, while we have someone ‘do the change’.
Heraclitus’ famous sixth century BCE adage ‘you never step twice in the same river’ has been criticised by those with the luxury of two thousand intervening years as confusing the category – the river – with the content – the water in it. Yet, is the river actually a river without any water in it? Perhaps it’s just a ditch. Eroding, filling. The water without a ditch? Just a puddle, draining slowly, evaporating. Both becoming something else.
IN THE SAME WAY – CAN WE SEPARATE CHANGE AND LIFE?
Just as they’re both messy, so is the philosophical debate around the nature of change that has been with us since this time and undoubtedly prior. Yet what Heraclitus did give us quite clearly through a perhaps simpler statement is the notion that ‘all is flux’. That we are forever growing, morphing and shedding until we are no more and what is left of us becomes something else entirely. That nothing stands still.
The inference for change is that it doesn’t happen in a laboratory, it’s not sanitised for our benefit, barely even swabbed with a citrus wet-wipe – it’s compromised, tainted. We’re involved and conflicted. What we make happen makes other things happen. And vice versa. Amidst this reality, we often see organisational change through a different lens to that in our personal life. Yet neither are these discreet or self- contained. ‘Work’ and ‘life’ aren’t different and can’t be balanced; work is part of life. We just try and ring-fence it to as far a degree as possible, so there’s something left that isn’t work. The degree is not just up to us, although we do have what we might consider a controlling interest. Change arches over all of our life and the lives we define – work and personal. We need to understand it in common to be able to prepare for it and make it happen in each.
To achieve this, we have to consider the infrastructure to change. Whether we are planning a hair tint or delivering a strategic re-structure across five continents. It has interrelated universal, global and local layers; ideas and realities that help explain why change is, literally, everything.
CHANGE HAS NO END STATE
At a universal level, where everything is flux, messy life is by nature an experiment. There is no end state, but there are conditions we would rather bring about that suit the time. When we consider we are done, they need maintenance, intervention, contribution. The long-held idea that change once enacted can be ‘frozen’ is but a momentary notion, the blink of an eye, the flip of a page in a business book. While 21st-century management thinking is awash with the megaphone-managed machismo of chest thumping transformation and the enforced adoption of new attitudes and behaviours, the natural path is one of evolution and adaptation. It is no less bold or innovative, with no less pace, but is human and reflective of the true nature of change. We work with it, not against it. We’re inclusive not transactional. There is no winning because are no losers.
At a global level, our world view, the lens through which we see everything around us, is formed of a hugely complex array of history culture, education, politics and family, amongst many others. What we see of a situation unfolding may be very different from the person standing next to us. Our world, too, is subject to a barrage of influences, while our Stone Age cognitive circuitry tries to cope with the complexity of modernity. There are times when everything looks like an on-rushing mammoth. Yet we all see nothing standing still in unique ways. The organisational change plan imprinted on a steamroller may not be appropriate.
At a local level, related to us personally and in the minutiae of our lives, we’re challenged with navigating the matrix of context (what we can and can’t do) and our values (what we will and won’t do), struggling with those claiming to lead and others trying to manage, juggling opportunities and risks, while those around us influence and enable. All the while back at HQ the croupier sticks are re-arranging the plan for resistance mitigation, talking in the lost tongue of wartime, wondering why it’s not working. Most of those being corralled merely care enough to want to say something. If only we would listen.
CHANGE IS EVERYTHING, OUR ESSENCE
In the universe as is, and the world as we see it, nothing stands still – whether we’re simply looking at our life, or beyond at the world of work in which we’re entangled. The condition of static predictability, craved by many organisations and around which they are designed, would be beyond stifling. Why would we want it? Uncertainty is our opportunity. There is still so much more to do.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
NEIL USHER has almost 30 years’ experience as a business leader who has delivered innovative working environments for large organizations globally. Together with this practical experience, his influential blog (workessence.com), regular conferences and academic talks have made him a leading thinker in the profession. He is also author of Elemental Workplace.
‘You never step in the same river twice.’ Our intensely interconnected world never stops evolving. Amid the chaos of intended and unexpected consequences we’re expected to lead a change initiative. We have to learn fast, as its already started. This highly practical, human and humorous book shows us how to makes complex change attainable – organizational, professional or personal – whether you have years of experience or are facing your first major challenge. It helps us think about what change is and means, how we prepare for it and what we do to make it successful. It may just be the most readable book about change yet.
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