A desire to preserve the status quo is about as useful to 21st-century organisations as nostalgia for office tea trollies and internal memos circulating in manila envelopes—and, yet, change management is one of the most challenging activities in any company. The vision statement’s new favourite buzzword, “transformation,” translates to “trench warfare against siloed middle management and vested interests.”
Rationally, we know that the status quo—of company structure, focus, and market—is at risk. The rate of disruption seems to be high, perhaps higher than ever, because of the digital revolution and a handful of other significant global trends. So why do we resist change so tenaciously?
To answer this puzzle, we must start with looking at our biases and expectations around how we describe change. We tend to see change as an event or a process, a “from” with an implicit “to” that is extraordinary, an exception to a norm that might otherwise have continued. The change programme or the digital transformation plan comes with the implied idea that we will arrive at a destination, a new state with a new status quo.
This is wishful thinking. Changes to customers, to markets, to how we work will continue to rapidly evolve for years to come. Waves—rather than a single surge—of disruption will continue to collide with our best-laid plans. Machine learning, quantum computing, human augmentation—these are only three areas of information technology that have not begun to fully exert their potential for innovation and disruption on markets and societies.
Balance Is An Active State
The answer is to shift from narratives and practices based on stability and towards balance. As Ed Catmull, legendary founder of Pixar and current president of that company and Disney Animation Studios, put it, physical balance is an active state, more about movement than being still.
Our organisations need to be less like monoliths or statues, and more like dancers—in motion, balanced, preparing for the next sequence of movements even as they are executing a challenging leap or pirouette.
To achieve this, we need to develop a narrative and then norms in our culture about the ability to adapt and change being one of the most prized aspects of corporate cultures.
There are three things leaders must rework, in order to change ourselves, our teams, and our companies, into entities that thrive in a state of constant adaptation and movement: stories, status, and habits.
Stories: How We Understand
We need to explain what change means to the organisation, how it will feel. For many, analogies like the ones Catmull uses about balance are going to hit the mark. We are in motion, in terms of our structure and our ways of working.
But we also need stories told with numbers—case studies and data about how change-ready teams and companies outperform others, and the big-picture story of how our industry, like society as a whole, will be buffeted by the waves of change for years to come.
Status: How We Feel
The “status” element of the status quo is the deep, dark reason we fight change, even when we want it to happen. Neuroscience has recognised status quo bias as one of humanity’s thinking traps that contribute to poor decision-making.
Another powerful driver of our behaviour is something called “status anxiety.” One example of this powerful syndrome can be seen in a study that showed that publicly giving people the status of a high performer—“x is a superstar”—makes them more likely to cheat. We were happy being a good performer, but once we are the golden child, we fear the day that someone else takes that honour and we are implicitly demoted.
People know where we are with the way things are. They may not be perfect, but they know where we are, and we do not seem to be in imminent danger of losing face or, indeed, our jobs.
The key to undoing this has to be about helping our people understand the value of their work, their output, and how—when things inevitably change—they will be able to express that value in the next version of their job. We can use data to help people understand their value to the organisation better, including their adaptability and contribution to change when it is needed. At present, even in organisations where data is used well, our focus is on individual or team performance—what they have done for the organisation.
Reframing and offering data that helps our people explain their value and their status within the organisation could act as an antidote to less useful ways of expressing status—presenteeism (“I am here all the time and super busy”) and attachment to a particular job title or role that may not be useful after the next wave of change hits.
Habits: How We Act
Visions are easy, living them is hard. Developing a vision and strategy is hard in the moment, but trifles in comparison to actually executing plans and making new ways of working. When we really change as individuals, our resolutions become habits, automatic responses. When we really change as organisations, visions become culture and fade to the background as things fondly regarded but no longer needed in the foreground.
Bringing together these three ways of thinking, feeling, and acting could be the most fundamental and useful change of all—turning our organisations into change machines, where disruptions in markets, technology, or customer behaviours are seen as opportunities to outpace competitors, not something to fear.
Becoming change-ready as an organisation will mean getting everyone to adapt to a new way of working and thinking about what success is at every level. Creating a hunger for balance in motion, and a disdain for the all-too-easily hidden risks of stability and clinging to the status quo will be the most powerful habit of all.