To thrive, embrace change

Last week’s column focused on the importance of how individuals react to change, and the significance of being adaptable and resilient. This week we shift our focus to the oganization and the key question: Is your organization adaptable, nimble and resilient in today’s reality of constant change?

Charles Darwin said, “It’s not the strongest species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” To survive and thrive, organizations today must be adaptive, managing change proactively. Those that don’t will go the way of the dinosaurs.

Companies that are thriving survivors foster a culture of flexibility, innovation and adaptability. Hewlett-Packard is a great example. While sticking to core technologies and values, it continually adapts to evolving technology, markets and new distribution channels. Hewlett and Packard began building basic electronics (out of a garage) and have continuously morphed their product focus from gadgets to computers to printers to supplies (as well as shifting distribution from traditional retail channels to e-commerce).

The most successful organizations approach change systematically and build in process, structure and systems to increase their capacity to compete in constantly changing markets with new technologies and delivery systems. Change-ready organizations identify marketplace shifts and are positioned to respond rapidly to changing customer needs.

From the bottom up, employees in these organizations share and integrate information on all levels (with one another, customers, vendors, etc.) and leverage all available resources. In these companies, employees are encouraged to “imagineer,” take reasonable risks and, yes, even make mistakes along the way. In a “learning” organization, employees understand they will be supported when pushing the envelope and not be punished for mistakes as a result of positive or creative effort.

Peter Senge, in his 1990 breakthrough book “The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization,” defines a learning organization as “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” His concepts still resonate today.

Learning organizations have common elements. They:

  • Encourage and support learning, celebrating errors as “learning opportunities” vs. mistakes or “failures.”
  • Reward innovative creative thinking and reasonable risk-taking.
  • Encourage and support creative collaboration and knowledge sharing vs. internal political turf wars, silos and personal kingdoms of “it’s mine.”
  • Encourage all levels of employee engagement and involvement in change.

How do you foster an organization that is change ready?

  • Hire and promote “problem-solvers” who can demonstrate their adaptability, creativity and zest for learning and innovation.
  • Build in processes to share knowledge and support learning, such as holding “debriefs” and “post-mortems” following project completion to mine and capture lessons. Share these with others to increase companywide wisdom.
  • Remove obstacles to effective change (such as complex approval processes). It isn’t practical to ask your thoroughbreds to run a successful race if the track is a junkyard of obsolete policies, processes and ineffective or inconsistent support.
  • Reward and build in structure that fosters entrepreneurship, innovation and learning (Google’s employees are told to spend 20 percent of their time on innovation). Prioritize continuous training. A highly trained work force will be more capable to take advantage of new opportunities.
  • Set well-defined expectations, particularly around the importance of productive, healthy debate, information sharing, creative collaboration, accountability and performance.

Is your organization a learning organization? Or are you stuck in the “It’s always worked in the past” syndrome? You may be in trouble if:

  • Mid- or upper-level management continually fails to prioritize (or support) the need for continuous change and improvement in process and skills as key to remaining competitive and adaptive.
  • Due to the “shoot the messenger” culture, employees are reluctant to bring forward bad news or new ideas.
  • There are different standards of values, ethics, performance and accountability (including acceptance of nonperformance or mediocre performance in some departments and not others).
  • Employees have given up trying to make change or feel powerless to change bad systems that hinder improvement or doing a good job.

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