During my six tours as a CEO and through the years of working with other CEOs, I have developed an understanding of the process of change that is considerably different from the one I learned at the Sloan School. I find that helping CEOs understand the subtleties of change is one of the major contributions that I make to their future and the future of their companies. Although I do not see change dualistically, it may be helpful to describe two of the major approaches to change in the constellation.
Action That Creates Change: I see this first approach to change in modernist and primarily tactical terms. It is presumptuous. CEOs often style themselves as visionaries or in messianic terms. Their self-images are ego-focused; they proceed as actors – proactively driving change often over the resistance of the world as they find it and the people on their team.
There are times when envisioning change in this way can be very productive. Change focused on a clear understanding of the needs of an organization is a good example. This is a form of engineering – tactical and directed. An example might be a company that is poised to move to the next level.
There are other times when this envisioning of change can be destructive. Change based on a self-serving misunderstanding of an organization’s need or a projection of bias onto those needs is a good example. This is a form of transference. An example might be the ego projection of a CEO onto a company. Here, the issues involved are inherently psychological.
Context That Creates Change: I see this second approach in post-modernist and strategic terms. It is inherently reactive. CEOs see themselves as pragmatists or in opportunistic terms. Their self-images are context-focused; they proceed as reactors – co-actively managing change as they take advantage of the evolving business context and evolution of the people on their team.
CEOs that are good at dealing with this kind of context-driven-change have keen eyes and ears that are sensitive to trends within their space. Being able to pick up the ‘thin edge of the change wedge’ is such an important capability in a postmodernist world where change is the one constant. This is an exercise in highly sensitive perception.
The destructive side of this approach to change comes when context is overridden by a counter tendency. I have encountered CEOs that attempt to deal with rapidly changing context by rapidly changing their approach to managing their company. This amounts to moving the flatware around on the table. Each new period brings yet another ‘visionaries vision’. The roiling waters of a CEO’s capricious nature mask the evolution of context and limit potential.
Change Is: An effective approach to dealing with change involves considering these and other visions. It requires a constantly readjusted balance among them as developments demand. It is an extremely subtle dance. Difficulties in effectively addressing change come from not only the inherently complex nature of change and the human reaction to it – but also from ineffective understandings of the situation present. Simply put, approaching change from an egocentric perspective when contextual evolutions are driving the need to change is a kamikaze raid on a vacant lot. Alternatively, approaching change as a reaction to contextual evolutions when tactical responses are called for generates a similar result. Both are a waste of energy, resources and time.
© Dr. Earl R. Smith II