How to Help Your Firm and Employees Navigate Change

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GettyImages/Courtney Keating

We live and work in a fascinating time of change. The broad market forces of technology, demographics, globalization, urbanization and others are fueling the winds of change, and no firm, industry or career is immune from the impact of these forces. Learning to cope with change is one important skill for all of us, and helping others participate in and navigate change successfully is a critical management and leadership skill for this era. 

The Big Picture on Change:

Technology has been the prime driver of change for a number of years and many of the pundits suggest that we've just begin to see the true impact of the rapid growth in the development and application of new technologies. Two leading books describe this period we are now in as either, "The Second Machine Age" or "The Fourth Industrial Revolution." A number of the factors supporting the case that change is accelerating include:

  • The life expectancy of our largest firms is shrinking from over sixty years just a couple of decades ago to less than thirty as of this writing. 
  • Clay Christensen, father of the concept of "The Innovator's Dilemma" suggests that by 2027, 75% of the current Fortune 500 companies (the largest publicly traded companies) will be displaced by new companies born of digital DNA. 
  • Technology is advancing at an exponential rate. Advancements in digital technologies, sensors, cloud computing, robotics and machine intelligence, 3D printing as well as advancements in biotechnology all provide evidence of the rate of change. 

    Almost every industry is under pressure from outside forces. Consider that the world's largest transportation company as of this writing (Uber) doesn't own any vehicles. And the world's largest media company at this time (Facebook) does not create any content. New competitors relying on new business approaches and integrating new technologies are threatening the survival of many traditional industries and the firms in those industries. 

    What's A Manager to Do?

    On the surface it might seem futile to think about resisting these adverse forces. However, firms can and do adapt and find their way forward into new markets with new approaches if their managers and employees are actively engaged in the work of change

    Historically, this work around navigating change was described as "change management." That phrasing is a bit of a misnomer, since it implies that we can actually exert control over the changes going on around us or that if we simply inform, involve and guide our employees, we can manage our way through change. While the issues of inform and involve are still very much relevant, it is essential that organizations become pro-active at looking for and acting on emerging opportunities and threats.

    The new world of change management is more organic and might be better described as change navigation. Today's managers are leaders are well served by focusing on more of an approach of navigation, working with employees to seize on new emerging opportunities and fend off sudden threats. 

    Five Ideas to Help Your Firm and Team Explore and Navigate Change:

    1. Engage in a process of continuous strategy and marketplace education with your employees.

     Teach your team about your industry, customers, partners and competitors. Work to ensure that every person in an organization from the CEO to the people staffing the front-desk understand the organization's strategy and key goals and objectives. Educating employees on the strategy and the marketplace gives them context for their work. They can more easily connect their efforts to the firm's situation and they can focus their priorities on the firm's priorities. 

    2. Involve your team members involved in observing and reporting on great practices of other firms. Encourage your colleagues to carefully study the practices and approaches of market leading firms in unrelated industries.

    One manager set up functional teams charged with the task of studying leading firms in different industries and reporting back on approaches and ideas that might be applied to their own firm. This idea generation by association resulted in a number of innovative changes in the firm that benefitted customers and helped differentiate versus competitors. Instead of reacting to change your firm is proactively defining the changes in your own market space by recombining ideas from other markets. 

    3. Establish a process for your employees to scan far and wide for interesting innovations that might one day impact your customers and your firm. Similar to number two above, this approach involves monitoring and curating interesting developments occurring in other sectors or with new technologies. One manager cut the travel budget to industry events and reallocated the funds to send team members off to trade shows and conferences in unrelated and fast moving markets in search of ideas. This work initiated a flood of observations and ideas for the firm to explore. The manager credits this approach for broadening the view of the team to the larger world and helping identify several new opportunities and threats they would not have otherwise considered. 

    4. Create the processes to turn ideas into experiments that support learning and innovation. Armed with insights from observing other market leaders or scanning across different industries and technologies, it is essential to create an organized method to curate the observations and ideas. One manager secured a small out-of-the-way office and turned it into an "Idea Room" where the observations were noted on whiteboards and flip-charts. She would regularly convene small group sessions in the room to discuss the observations and brainstorm on their potential as opportunities or threats. As an idea matured, she helped guide the team through the process of bringing it to life in the form of market studies, pilot projects and customer tests. 

    5. Let your team members own the implementation and execution of new ideas via projects. A core part of what used to be termed "change management" involves getting employees involved in bringing the needed changes to life. Whether you are pursuing an idea from the processes described above or considering implementation of new systems and software, ensure that your team members are active participants in the early planning and eventual project management phases. 

    The Bottom Line:

    As manager or leader, your task is less about managing change and much more about working with your team members and employees to identify new opportunities or needed changes to stave off threats. This is a fundamental shift in the role of a manager and a departure from traditional approaches to change management. Instead of imposing change from the top down, today's firms and leaders are challenging their employees to define the needed changes and then empowering them with support and the necessary resources. 

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    Updated by Art Petty