I once saw a tin for staff tips on the counter in a coffee store somewhere in New Mexico. The handwritten label read "Some people hate change - we love it"
Is implementing and living with change really just a question of attitude? Some cultures - perhaps the European ones - do seem to focus more on simply "getting through" a change period, surviving with the minimum collateral damage.
There is a tendency to focus on just how bad the medicine will taste, rather than how much better we might feel afterwards.
"I have a dream"
People can adapt to any change, however great. The challenge is not the scale of the change, but:
- the length of time that change takes to achieve
- uncertainty as to what "the new" will look like
- doubt as to whether the leadership is genuinely sharing in the change
In other words, change planning must meet the "how will we know when we've got there?" test.
Among the agents of change in the history of the 20th century, the Rev. Martin Luther King was a giant. Two of his most famous speeches offer some lessons for running a change programme in any organisation.
King's 1963 "I have a dream" speech in Washington inspired because it drew a precise, even homely picture of the kind of society he was trying to build. People knew how they would tell "whether they had got there". Any leader would do well to bear that simple lesson in mind. To use our crude management speak:
- he described the "endgame" he wanted to see, and did so in clear, familiar images
- the very familiarity and clarity of his vision made the huge scale of the task ahead almost reassuring
- by describing this future world in terms of the audience's experience, not the leader/speaker's, King reinforced the "one of us" dimension: leadership through empathy
A speech given by King in Alabama two years later was, ironically, more akin to the kind of messages change management programmes tend to give out in reality. The mantra on this occasion was:"How Long? Not Long..!"