Skills of the Change Master
by Joe Flower
skills of the rest of the decade and the opening of the new century will
be the skills of dealing with change. They
are the skills of jazz, not of chamber music, of basketball rather than
baseball, of poker rather than chess, skills of dealing with situations
that are in constant flux, situations about which you do not know enough
to make a decision - yet you must constantly make decisions, and even failing
to decide is itself a decision, irrevocable, the lost time unrecoverable,
the opportunity evaporated.
do this? Do you have the skills? Are you ready?
teach these skills in school. I haven't seen a real curriculum for them
anywhere. For some people, the skills of dealing with change are difficult,
and do not come easily. I am convinced, though, that they can be learned
are these skills? If you ask people to name the skills of change,
most would mention a certain openness to new ideas and realities, a certain
flexibility, a willingness to try something different, to be different in
some way. And they would be right: openness and flexibility are certainly
prerequisites. But they are insufficient. Here we will be looking at what
I would call the "deep skills" of dealing with change. I invite you to ask
yourself, "Am I good at this? Can I think of some recent time when I exhibited
this skill? Or a time when I needed this skill, and didn't have it? How
could I get better at this? How could my organization get better at this?"
skills of change:
The skill of keeping touch with what is deep and constant in the midst
of change. The martial artist would call this "keeping base." We might
call it "not forgetting who you really are." This allows you to maintain
your balance and keep contact with your true goals. The question, for
individuals, families and organizations, is: What are your deepest values?
How do those deep values inform the way you react to change?
The skill of truly hearing the other: your spouse; the most bitter,
dug-in, resistant people in your organization; the other half of a racially
divided community; or the part of yourself that you are spending enormous
energy trying to ignore. Change often is expressed most directly in
your relationships to people around you. All by itself, listening is
one of the most powerful tools of change. We are not talking here of
listening passively, with an occasional encouraging grunt. We are talking
about listening actively, asking questions, telling the other what you
think you are hearing and asking them to correct you, with no argument
and no agenda, truly no agenda other than to deeply understand this
person. Think of it as being teachable. Think of it as interviewing.
How do you know when you have listened enough? When the other person
feels that you have heard them, and can say so. This allows you to understand
the other, and often to discharge much of the negative energy on the
other side. The question here is: What can you do that you have not
done to truly understand the other?
The skill of temporarily experiencing the world from the other's point
of view. This is expressed in the American proverb, "Walk a mile in
my shoes." The martial artist would call it, "blending," moving with
the oncoming blow and matching its speed. The psychologist or hypnotherapist
might call it "pacing the other's reality," temporarily drawing out
and amplifying the client's view of the world. You can do this even
if your world view is completely opposite, and you can do it without
ever pretending that you have dropped or forgotten your own truths.
It is temporary, but it only has power if it is complete, if for at
least that moment you have immersed yourself in the world view of the
other. This could be physical: actually putting on the clothes of the
other side, doing their job for a day. It might be educational: reading
all the literature that the other side reads, studying their arguments
and their decisions. It might be purely mental, and it could take mere
seconds: as you sit down in a meeting with someone, imagining for a
few moments that you are them, coming to meet with you. This allows
you not only to understand the change with which you are dealing, but
to find a point of leverage, which is often the point of common ground.
The question here is: What can you do that is temporary but complete,
to become the other, the person or force that represents the change
you are facing?
The skill of seeing that the presenting symptom is often not the real
problem. The presenting symptoms might be a bump on the head, an enlarged
pupil, and lethargy indicating possible concussion, the next layer is
an abusive husband and alcoholism, the layer under that is that the
local factory has closed, people are jobless and despondent. Every change
arrives in disguise. The image is one of peeling away the layers of
the onion. The martial artist would call this "irimi," or entering:
rather than dealing with the club or sword that is about to crash down
on his head, he slips past it to deal directly with the opponent's center.
This allows you greater leverage for less energy. The question here
is: Is the change facing me the real change? What is behind it? And
what's behind that? What is the best level at which I can deal with
to the outside: The skill of staying out of the way of the change
until you can get at it from a better angle. The game is called "whose
monkey is this?" The martial artist would call it, "tenkan," or turning
to the outside. Confronted with an overwhelming force, he does not try
to block it directly, and neither does he run away. Instead, he maintains
contact with the attacker, but steps to one side, maneuvering to find
a point of greater leverage. Stepping out of the direct path of the
change allows you more options. The question here is: What options do
I have besides resisting this change?
vision: The skill of seeing the forest. The martial artist who keeps
his head down, focusing on the technique he is doing at the moment,
will likely get clobbered by the next attacker. The manager who keeps
her nose to the grindstone, focusing all her energy on today's topic
one - say, a re-organization - is likely to miss the political
opposition, change in rules, or new competition with the potential to
take the whole enterprise out of the game. Wider scanning buys you time.
The question here is: What am I missing? What assumptions am I making
about the basis of the political and economic support of my organization,
about the foundations of my family, or about my health, or the soundness
of my job?
time: The willingness to stay in the moment of ambiguity. Change
is scary. Most people want to get it over with, to get to the end. We
experience a tremendous pressure, from our peers and subordinates, and
from deep within ourselves, to get to a resolution, to get things settled
down. Yet timing is important in everything from soufflés to civil rights.
President Lyndon Johnson had long held a deep desire to do something
about race relations in the United States. But he waited until external
events had pushed the public to a fever pitch, demanding action, before
he introduced the landmark legislation that became the Civil Rights
Act of 1964. Similarly,
the new mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown, is known as the type who
can get anything done with amazing speed. He had promised to convene
a summit meeting on homelessness. But as the date for the summit approached,
he found that everyone - business, neighborhood leaders, homeless activists
- expected him to do something about the problem, but it had to be their
way. They had no consensus on their definition of "the problem." So
he canceled the meeting, and told the public why. He was roundly criticized,
yet the tactic will likely succeed - by increasing the pressure on the
various groups involved to come up with creative solutions that everyone
can back. Executives are particularly handicapped in their sense of
timing by a management culture that equates speed with decisiveness,
and delay with increased costs, lost opportunity, and loss of control.
As ex-Apple CEO John Sculley has put it, "When most companies are confronted
with problems, they try simply to fix them." In that climate, a tremendous
advantage accrues to the player who is most willing to just hang out
with the problem. The reality is that there is a right time to move,
and that time is rarely "as soon as possible." Sometimes the right time
to move is "as late as possible." The question here is not "How soon
can I get through this?" The question is, "When is the best moment to
The ability for an organization, an individual, or a community to move
as one. We might call this "integrity." The martial artist might talk
about "uprightness" or "balance." This is not typical. More commonly,
when we move, we move disjointedly. We make decisions without involving
the people affected by the decisions. We leave troublesome people out
of the information loop. We make a decision, then look for a magic wand
that will get people to "buy in" to it. People react to the change out
of fear, since they had no information and no voice. Wholeness allows
you to move with tremendous speed when the time comes to move. The question
here is, "What would this organization look like if it were more whole?
What can I do differently to help that happen? What are the origins
of the splits in the organization - between the suits and the hands-on
people, between different specialties and departments, different levels
of training, and so on? What can we do to heal them?"
The understanding of how change works. Dealing with change takes training.
It takes study, in subjects like chaos theory, family dynamics, communications
theory, systems theory, and psychology. And it takes experience-based
training aimed at cultivating the abilities of the true change master.
You cannot deal with change successfully without changing yourself.
The abilities of the change master are not superficial, like a better
golf stroke. To master change, we must become different at the deepest
level. The question here is, "What can I learn that would make me better
at dealing with change?" The clue is: choose what is hardest for you
- that is your true path.
the center: The skill of lining up who you are with what you do
every day - the decisions you make, how you spend your time, what you
offer to people. We have heard for years about "aligning incentives,"
a phrase that usually means making sure the employees make money, rather
than lose money, doing what the organization wants them to do. But
the alignment you need within the organization, and between yourself
and the organization, goes deeper than money. It goes, in fact, to your
deepest values, to who you are in your essence. Find the interplay between
your agenda and the organization's needs, the intersection, the place
where those goals line up. Look at what you do did today, and what you
plan to do tomorrow: how many of these tasks proceed from your deepest
values? How do they promote what you believe in? Building the tasks
of each day from your deepest values, from there to your long-term goals,
then to intermediate goals, and finally to how you are spending your
time today, allows you to bring all your energies to the task at hand.
The question here is: "How do the things I am doing today express my
deepest values? How does what I am asking my subordinates or team members
to do align with their deepest values?"
The skill of knowing when to move. We might call it, "Picking your
battles." The martial artist will think of it as, for instance, making
no attempt to throw the opponent until his energy has been destabilized.
In its dark phase, this skill is called being opportunistic. As Kenny
Rogers' song "The Gambler" says, "You got to know when to hold, `em,
know when to fold `em, know when to walk away, know when to run." In
the midst of turbulence, we have an agenda, a direction we want to go.
For the martial artist, it might be "to stay safe, upright, and free
to move." For you, it might be "to increase the teamwork of my organization,"
"to get the people in my family to really talk to each other," or "to
learn how to operate from desire instead of from fear." Offering a plan
for quality improvement and lower cost will not work if the people in
your organization are not feeling the pinch of competition, and have
not yet seen how they could do it. When they have seen other people
do it, they will be eager to try it themselves. Until then, no amount
of jawboning, coercion or "incentivizing" will be enough. This allows
you greater effect for less effort The question here is: "Is this the
right moment? Have the forces I am struggling with been destabilized?
Am I meeting them head-on, or at the moment when they can be toppled
with a finger?"
the skill of sustaining relationships. To a martial artist, this
is "unbroken focus," being aware of all opponents while throwing one,
staying connected to the opponent in between moments of crisis. A brittle
manager deals with what is in front of her, the disaster of the hour,
the urgency forced on her by outside forces. The change master keeps
in touch with people who have nothing to do with the problem of the
moment, just to stay connected, to spread the net wider, to keep the
sensory channels open. Jeff Katzenberg, in his years as a studio head
at Disney, is said to have often made several hundred phone calls in
a day, often only a minute or two long, just to check in with people
and see how things were going. Sustaining relationships strengthens
your network before you need it, gives you an "early warning system,"
and generates ideas you could never have thought up yourself. The question
here is, "Who am I talking to these days? Who could I call?"
Focus: The skill of rapidly and cleanly shifting focus, being fully
present with what is in front of you, and able to fully set aside what
is not the present task. Whatever you do, even if your job has not changed,
in many ways you are no longer in the same business you were in five
years ago. You may find yourself changing hats from manager to student
to customer to team member to organizer. Your roles and tasks may shift
from one month to the next, or even hour to hour. The flip side of zanshin
is the ability to be totally present with what you are doing, then letting
go of it in order to be completely present for the next task. This allows
you to bring all your energy to what is in front of you. The question
here is: "Am I, for this moment, completely absorbed in this task, this
person, this process, with a settled mind and focused intent?"
in uncertainty: The skill of being able to move with insufficient
data. You never have enough information. That's part of the nature of
being an executive - or a human. Obviously, you want as much data as
possible to confirm your judgment and give you feedback. Yet often you
must make a decision with imperfect information, or you risk losing
the moment. This skill allows you to move when the moment is right,
even when the information is cloudy and incomplete. The question here
is: "Which way would I move if I had to move right now? Is this the
time to move?"
overwhelm quotient: The willingness to take on "too much." The quote
here is from Bokonon, a character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat's
Cradle: "Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God."
Is keeping things in your comfort range a goal for you? Comfort is the
enemy of skill, alertness, and energy. If you want to get good at handling
change, you need regular practice. Deliberately pushing your envelope
(dreaming up new projects, saying yes to the next change suggestion
that comes your way) allows you to exercise your skills in place and
time that you choose, before you need them on a schedule chosen by the
wind and the trickster devils of change.
Drive: The skill of finding joy in the doing, not just in the result.
Change is a long, bumpy, aggravating road, with a lot of detours, changed
destinations, and stops for repairs. If you don't love the journey itself,
you will not be able to push on. You will burn out waiting for that
great moment of victory, the one that never quite comes. If you are
attached to the outcome, what will you do when you have to change your
mind? Are you bent on the destination, or the journey? Surfers don't
do all that work just to get to the shore. They're interested in the
ride. Being driven internally, by your own joy in the work, by the powerful
turbines of your own deepest values, allows you stay the course when
outside incentives - money, praise, reputation - would not be enough.
The question is: "How does doing this give me joy?"
For Paradox: The skill of entertaining two opposing ideas at the
same time, as the raftsman maintains his balance in the midst of the
rushing river - not because of the river or in spite of the river, but
with it. Here as elsewhere, the answer is not in the answer, but in
the question. Confronted with two opposite ideas (for instance, better
outcomes and lower budgets), tradition and training push us to resolve
the paradox immediately. We feel we can't go any further without deciding
which idea will be the guide. Circumstances often force us to hang out
in the paradox, sometimes for years, all the time wondering which side
will win out. The answer is in the question: sometimes the only lasting
way to cut costs is to increase quality. The ability to milk paradox
allows us to find solutions that are "outside the box." The question
here is: "What would happen if I did not try to resolve this, but just
let it be a paradox?"
sense: The skill of finding the opportunity in the crisis. Every
change creates new markets, new needs. It shifts the status quo and
creates gaps. The brittle manager only sees the change, the crisis.
The change master sees the newly-opened market. What was a looming disaster
through one lens becomes, through another lens, an opportunity. The
skill of seeing opportunity in change allows you to gather energy, resources,
and capital from change as it occurs, rather than wasting them in resisting
it. The question here is: "What need does this change create? How would
filling that need further my agenda?"
not easy skills to acquire, if they are not a natural part of your toolkit
already. You can't pick them up in a few hours at a conference, or by reading
a few books. There is no correspondence course. Re-organizing yourself for
change is less like a Berlitz language class and more like a life path.
Re-fitting your organization for change is not a matter of "Get me a new
corporate culture while you are up." It calls for a long-term passionate
commitment to becoming a learning organization, and a willingness on the
part of everyone in management to follow that path even when it gets uncomfortable,
difficult, and surprising. In the end, you do not have a choice. Brittle
organizations, and brittle managers, will not survive these times.
these skills form a way of seeing the world, a way of being, that is profoundly
different from the conventional skills of a manager in a slow-moving organization
in an evolving industry. But they are the same skills that we need to be
good parents, mates, citizens - and good humans - in a fluid world of dazzling
and frustrating change.