When dealing with change and disruption, a flow of learning, unlearning, and relearning must happen to help ensure we make the right decisions, take the right actions, and achieve the right outcomes. But all too often, people cannot move past the familiar and embrace new ideas and conditions to continuously reinvent how they view the world around them.
We see this universal truth unfold every year in American football, for example. A considerable percentage of players retire after earning an average salary of $2.5 million, only to go bankrupt within two years. All too often, they can't let go of a lifestyle that they became comfortable and accustomed to living. And the same phenomenon happens in organizations where employees cling to ideas and processes that no longer serve themselves nor their businesses well.
So how can we push beyond feelings of security and complacency to readily adapt to change? According to Aidan McCullen, author of "Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life," the answer may lie in a simple Zen proverb:
"Knowledge is learning something new every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day."
Accepting Change as a Milestone, Not a Millstone
It's not unusual to desire change. But when leadership mandates the use of a new process or asks employees to adopt a new behavior, people are not as forthcoming to accept it. This reaction is one of the biggest obstacles to effective organizational leadership—a challenge that volumes of books have been written about, but never offering a single tried-and-true solution.
Whether or not people change, the environment around them most certainly will. Shifting markets have been known to bankrupt even the most formidable competitors. New skill sets, which no one could have predicted five years ago, can become high priorities overnight. (Who knew that the willingness to be flexible, agile, and adaptable to change would surpass the need for coding and data science?)
"Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one daydreams about changing themselves. The human brain treats new ideas as abnormal and resists them almost immediately, which is perfectly natural," observed McCullen. "For people to adopt transformational change continuously, they must actively shed outdated information constantly."
Encouraging a workforce to model this behavior may seem nearly impossible without the right tools. Luckily, McCullen shared a framework called the “diffusion of innovation” or “S-curve.” Sociologist Everett Rogers popularized this approach to help organizational leaders break through common barriers to adoption with a more systematic approach to change management.
Turning Change into Fuel for Business Success
When an organization tries to introduce a new idea, skill, process, or operational capability, the discussion is usually too ambiguous or conceptual for anyone to understand the level of change that is about to happen. Instead, the pitch appears to be a narrative that doesn't seem real.
But if the narrative sounds compelling enough, executive leadership may decide to fund the proposed change. This introductory phase is when a simple "musing" becomes a prototype. An adjacent business area or two may even choose to sponsor the project as well, contributing some of its budget and resources to support it. Before long, the gap between concept and realization starts to close as intended users or the marketplace grow to understand the advantages of adopting the change, and the business scales its ability to adapt accordingly.
The change process then enters the maturity stage, which is dangerous for most businesses. Without the willingness to reinvent anything, the prototype slowly declines into obscurity. Gaining adopters' attention and buy-in requires strategies such as establishing competitive pricing, raising the stakes for not switching, or demonstrating how they could be left behind. No matter the chosen tactic, the goal is to keep everyone in the ecosystem, so they don't leave and go to a competing alternative.
At this moment in the framework, the change is introduced into an environment that is most likely stable. Users may likely perceive it as a threat, viewing it as a step backward, or one that's too far ahead. This is where leadership must remind people that their willingness to reinvent their experiences in the past led to a strong business or brand reputation today.
"Jumping into a new S-curve is absolutely critical at this point," McCullen advised. "Even if management does all the right things, such as focusing on the business as it stands today and exploring future capabilities, users can remain stuck. Why? Because incentives are often short term and lack any sense of a long-term vision."
Embracing a Balance of Purpose and Necessity
With a mindset of abundance, people are more willing to take risks and accept change. When reacting to a crisis, they often reject change that promises any degree of growth. And rightfully so—such ambidextrous thinking does not come naturally.
To stay competitive, businesses must be purposeful about reinventing before the necessity to change ever arises. It's analogous to repairing the roof of a house when the sun is still shining. The more bets that people are willing to take now, the greater the chances that all business areas can work together to fuel future growth.
Want to learn more about the permanent reinvention mindset? Register today to attend “ASUG Express: Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organizations, and Life,” featuring Aidan McCullen.