About five years, ago, when I was still editor in chief at CIO, we began a major transformation from a print-centric media company to online. During that time, every day brought new challenges, frustrations, discoveries, joy and despair. I think many of us thought we'd power our way through all that turmoil and, eventually, things would get back to "normal." After a couple of years, it began to dawn on us that if there was ever to be a new normal, it was well over the horizon, and in fact, we'd better learn to live in a state of change.
I've been interested in the topic of change since I started working with CIOs over 20 years ago. Information technology is a serious catalyst of change. In the course of my research – and through my own experiences, I've come to believe that change in itself is neither a negative nor a positive, but it is a force – a force to be understood, reckoned with and, to some extent, managed.
We published a great article by Chris Koch on the neuroscience of change back in 2006. It explained:
Change hurts. Not the boo-hoo, woe-is-me kind of hurt that executives tend to dismiss as an affliction of the weak and sentimental, but actual physical and psychological discomfort. And the brain pictures prove it.
Change lights up an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is like RAM memory in a PC. The prefrontal cortex is fast and agile, able to hold multiple threads of logic at once to enable quick calculations. But like RAM, the prefrontal cortex's capacity is finite—it can deal comfortably with only a handful of concepts before bumping up against limits. That bump generates a palpable sense of discomfort and produces fatigue and even anger....
The prefrontal cortex crashes easily because it burns lots of fuel of the high-octane variety: glucose, or blood sugar, which is metabolically expensive for the body to produce.
Given the high energy cost of running the prefrontal cortex, the brain prefers to run off its hard drive, known as the basal ganglia, which has a much larger storage capacity and sips, not gulps, fuel. This is the part of the brain that stores the hardwired memories and habits that dominate our daily lives.
"Most of the time the basal ganglia are more or less running the show," says Jeffrey M. Schwartz, research psychiatrist at the School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. "It controls habit-based behavior that we don't have to think about doing." Like, for instance, many aspects of our jobs.
This explains why even when people buy in to change intellectually, they often fall back on the old way of doing things.
So how does change happen? First, it's important to really understand that change is a three-stage process, not a flip of the switch. William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, describes the three stages as ending or letting go; the neutral zone; and the new beginning.
This of course is a variation on the classic three-stage model of change –unfreeze, change/learn and refreeze – developed by Kurt Lewin, one of the pioneers of organizational psychology, and adopted by many practitioners and consultants in organizational development.
The first stage involves overcoming inertia, defense mechanisms, existing biases and ingrained behaviors. As William Bridges writes, "every new beginning starts with an ending."
The second stage is where the change occurs. The old is gone, but we don't yet have a clear picture of what the new reality will be. This is a time of both great potential and innovation – and of uncertainty and trepidation. Of all three stages, this one is where things most often go awry.
The third stage is about locking down the new behaviors, norms and beliefs.
Change requires that people feel at least two seemingly conflicting emotions at once: what Edgar Schein calls survival anxiety – or fear that staying the same is dangerous – along with a sense of psychological safety that comes from seeing that it's possible to solve a problem and learn something new without a loss of identity or integrity. For people to change, survival anxiety must outweigh what Schein, an expert on organizational culture and change, calls learning anxiety.
In fact, a culture of change is a learning culture. Jack Welch has said, "An organization's ability to learn, and to translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage." So what exactly is a learning culture? First of all, the organization's assumptions, values and beliefs must support adaptation, learning and empowerment. And, pay attention, all you perfectionist managers: It's more important to be committed to the process of solving the problem than to any particular solution.
These days, with waves of change following one upon another, a learning culture may be not only a competitive advantage – it may be a condition of survival.
Of course, to Welch's second point, learning in and of itself is not enough if you don't quickly translate what is learned into action.
In my next post I'll write about four keys to successfully managing change.
See my recent presentation, "Leading in a Turbulent World," on Slideshare. You can view the slides below, but to read the substance of the talk, go to the Slideshare version.