What's your goal in dealing with change?

by Joe Flower

International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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If we are to deal productively and powerfully with change, we have to start by asking: What's the point? Here comes a train down the track: a manager causing morale problems with his bad attitude, competition for a major contract, legislation that threatens to cut your revenue by a third or more, a rival organization trying to entice away your top-producing customers -- or a child who seems to have discovered drugs, a spouse who seems to be changing drastically, a nagging uncertainty about your own future.

Before you react, stop and ask yourself: What's my goal? What am I trying to accomplish?


For many of us, when faced with an impending change -- whether a new CEO, a shift in the political structure of the town, or a change in our personal relationships -- the goal is simple avoidance: "I will not let this change effect me." The thoughts that go along with such a stance often have to do with identity: "I am the kind of person who does things this way. I am not the kind of person who does things that way." As Popeye would say, "I am what I am and that's all what I am."

This actually works -- but only for matters that turn out to be irrelevant. For things that make a real difference, it is a foolish stance. When a train is coming, it's best to get off the track. When opportunity knocks, it's best to go to the door and open it. Rigidity in a turbulent environment leaves you with few options.

The trick is to recognize "the difference that makes a difference" (as Gregory Bateson defined true information), to separate the relevant from the irrelevant. Often we give too much energy and attention to changes that are far away and have little potential to effect us -- national political debates, abstract worries about relationships, the latest technological fads -- and not enough to the things that are right in front of us, the task that is at hand.


For other people the goal is merely to accept change, to be flexible, to "swing with it," to say, in the dismissive argot of children, "Whatever." Flexibility can be a good first step in dealing with change, but it cannot be the last step. And complete flexibility is usually illusory. If you are saying "Yes" too often and too easily, you are probably fooling yourself, building up resentments and defenses outside of your conscious awareness. These are the easy-going, agreeable people who suddenly walk out on the marriage, chuck the job, sour on the project. These are the organizations that back out of the too-hasty merger or joint venture.


For some, the goal of dealing with change is to dominate, to win. But this goal is equally ill-conceived. Winning is about the other: I win if my opponent suffers. In a garden, the plants compete for the available water, sunlight, and nutrients. Yet we do not measure the success of one plant by the failure of the plants around it. We measure it in its own terms: its size, the number, size, and flavor of its fruit, the lushness of its foliage, the grace of its shape and color.

In aikido and some other martial arts, there are practices called jiyu waza andrandori, in which one might be faced with many different attackers at once, or by a series of attackers all using different techniques -- strikes, kicks, grabs. Done well, the defense is astonishing, lovely, and never twice the same, the attackers pinwheeling through space, falling in heaps, or slamming into the mat. Yet throwing the attacker is not the goal. Some attackers are simply bypassed, or deftly waltzed into the path of another attacker. The goal -- the point of the exercise -- is for the defender to stay on her feet, able to move, in charge of her space. Success is defined not by the defeat of the attacker, but by the continued freedom and potency of the defender.

The reason that dominance, "winning," does not work is simple: it is aimed at the wrong target. Whatever the change that is headed our way, whoever the "attacker," what we truly have to struggle with is ourselves. James Collins and Jerry Porras of Stanford University, found this to be true in their study of 18 "visionary" companies that were experts in survival (such as Boeing, Disney, and Sony). Arie de Geus and the Shell Global Planning Group found it to be true in their studies of the world's longest lived companies:

The organizations that
survive and thrive
do not ask,
"How can I beat
the competition?"
They ask, "How can
I outdo myself?"

The organizations that survive and thrive over a long period of time do not ask themselves, "How can I beat the competition?" They ask themselves, "How can I outdo myself?"

Each of these organizations, at crucial times in their histories, took on overwhelming tasks (Collins and Porras call them "BHAGs," or "big hairy audacious goals") -- such as Sony deciding to move into the American market, or Motorola pushing for "Six-Sigma" levels of quality. Often, as for Walt Disney creating Snow White or building Disneyland, or Boeing when it built the 707, and again when it built the 747, these goals were outrageous in size, true "bet the company" gambles. Each of these were in response to changes in their environments -- the maturing of animation, for instance, or advances in jet engine and aircraft construction technologies. But they went far beyond mere reactions. And they had little to do with what the other guy was doing. In many cases, no one else was doing anything like it.

By taking on these BHAGs, they captured the imagination and energy of everyone in their organization, and were able to make extraordinary efforts. But there is irony here as well: by focusing on their own capacities to create something new, rather than focusing on their competition, they surged ahead of the competition and gained positions as market leaders that lasted for decades.

Those who are driven by competition are always in reaction. They are never ahead of the pack. In martial arts, the defender succeeds by deciding the pace of the battle, its direction, and who she will take on next. The defender, paradoxically, has all the freedom, because she is responding to the situation, while the attackers can only react to her. In healthcare, an organization that can make swift changes in a turbulent environment sets the pace for others in their market, forcing them into changes that are reactive, often ill-conceived, and made without proper foundation.

Using the energy of change

Success in dealing with change is not about refusing to let it effect you, or simply accepting it, or defeating it. Success in dealing with change is about profiting from it, about using the energy that it brings into your life to challenge yourself, to become larger, deeper, more lush, more fruitful, more useful to those around you -- as Disney used the Baby Boom, as Boeing used new technologies, as Columbia/HCA has used increased cost pressures, the disintegration of other for-profit chains, and the heavy debt load of not-for-profits. Each of thse acted in the midst of powerful, chaotic, shifting forces of change. But they did not merely react to change, they danced with it.

The key thing to remember when dancing with a gorilla is this: you don't stop when you get tired. You stop when the gorilla gets tired.

And the gorilla has more energy than you do. Try to run away, and the gorilla will catch you. Hold on tightly and artfully, and you can make the gorilla do all the work. On the martial arts mat, after a well-done randori, the attackers are exhausted, puffing and sweating. The defender is calm and centered. She has used the manic energy of her attackers, and very little of her own.

So: faced with changes beyond our control (a shifting market for our services, unprecedented demands for cost reductions, expensive new technologies, a sudden change in governance -- or a divorce, or the loss of a job) the goal is not merely to survive, but to thrive, using the very energy that the change brings to us.

As the martial arts saying has it, "The hit is a gift."

Is this easy? No. It is
unbelievably difficult.
And it is counter-intuitive
to an extraordinary degree.
It can seem like
a crazy response.

Two friends are researching a book on happiness. In interviewing scores of truly happy people, this was the one factor that they had in common -- not wealth, health, or diet, not youth or age, not being married or single, not being religious, or educated, but only this: the ability to transmute the changes in their environment, even the evil and difficult changes, into power, into positive, useful energy. The people they interviewed had no more luck than anyone else. Some had suffered the death of children, or disfiguring diseases. Some even faced an early death from terminal illness. All were able, over time, to find good for themselves in these evil events.

Is this easy, fun, and educational? No, it is unbelievably difficult. And it is counter-intuitive to an extraordinary degree. It can seem like a crazy response to news of a contract falling through, or a diagnosis of heart disease, to say to yourself, "What can I gain from this? How can the loss make our organization stronger? How can I use the power of heart disease to change my life for the better?" Yet at some point, after the disbelief, the anger, the fear, this becomes the only sane option, the only one that works. The nurses' strike leads you to rebuild relationships within the organization, the heart disease leads you to a better diet, toward re-thinking your priorities, evaluating your life. If there were any easier way, we'd take it.

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