Are you “so over change” right now?

By: Patrick Hollingworth, Sr. Consultant & Leadership Speaker, Executive Development Associates

Are you “so over change right now”? If you are, then instead of watching something crummy on TV tonight, read this instead – it’s really important!

In previous posts, I’ve presented the case that the world in which we’re living is becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA). I’ve presented two concepts which I think might be of benefit in this VUCA world, the Explorer’s Mindset and the Alpine Style Approach. There’s a whole bunch of tools in addition to these that can be used to contend with VUCA, and I’ll unpack these in the future, but right now I want to take a step back for a moment, and address what I think are important contextual and associated problems which I may have failed to previously adequately address.

1. The contextual problem is this: Change is happening a whole lot, and it’s changing a whole lot more than it ever did before.

So how do we understand change?

The first stage of understanding change is accepting that change is happening, and while you may think that for most people this is a given, for some it is not.

The second stage of understanding change is acknowledging that the rate, or pace, of change is quickening. There are two reasons for the rate increasing. The first is about perception, and the second is what is happening.

First off, the rate of change feels like it’s getting faster, and the older you are the greater the sensation of increased pace will be. If as you read this post you are 50 years of age, you will probably have known of cars for most of your life, but you will only have known of the internet for the last two decades, the smart phone for only the last decade, and tablet computing for the last half decade. On the other hand, if you are currently 20 years old (lucky you!) then you’ve never known the world without the internet and smart phones have been around since the time you entered secondary school, and tablets have been around for a quarter of your life. Thus, the older you are, the faster it seems that change is happening.

Secondly, change actually IS happening faster, particularly with regard to computing technology. Whilst some technological advances have progressed in relatively linear fashion — think for example of the car, which has changed comparatively little since the Model T Ford was introduced (i.e. most cars today are of still of a similar size, still have four wheels, a steering wheel and are powered by an internal combustion engine) — other technologies, such as computer processing power have increased exponentially.

Don’t believe me? Well here are two commonly cited examples of how the rate of change is getting faster.

The first is called Moore’s Law. If you know a bit about computers, microchips and the progress of Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 70s then you will have heard of it, and even if you haven’t heard of it then you are at the least familiar with its outcomes. Moore’s Law was an observation made by microchip manufacturer Intel’s CEO Gordon Moore that the number of transistors that could be included in a microchip was doubling roughly every two years or so, thus meaning that computers were becoming increasingly smaller and a great deal more powerful.

This doubling of computing power has led to exponential growth in computing power, and there are plenty of examples out there of what this looks like in reality, with probably the best one being that Apple’s iPhone 6 model has more computing power in it than all of NASA had in 1969 when they Armstrong walked on the moon.

One of the biggest problems around exponential growth is that as humans we can’t really grasp the concept of it. Whilst we are familiar with the concept of linear growth, that is, growth which progresses in a straight line, exponential growth is something else entirely.

To illustrate this concept is an example from futurist/technology/singularity expert Ray Kurzweil, if I walk 30 steps in a linear function I will travel a distance of approximately 30 meters or so (I’m rather tall). But if I were to take 30 steps in an exponential function, the distance covered would take me nearly two thirds of the way to the sun (a distance of 100 million kilometers).

The second commonly cited example illustrating the speed of change was the massive effort to map the human genome (it involved 5 countries and 20 universities and took 13 years to finally be completed in 2003 at a cost of $3 billion).

At the time of its completion in 2003, US President Clinton held a press conference with other world leaders to announce the project’s success.

These days, it can be done for a cost of about $1,000.

So what? How does this relate to me? And can I go back to watching TV now? No!

I’m using these two examples as a way to illustrate how the change that technology is bringing will be unlike anything else that we have experienced before. And I really don’t think enough of us are aware of truly how much technologically driven change is going to alter things. The way we do our work, the way our children get educated, the way we recreate, and generally live our lives is going to change.

So many organizations right now are stuck in the status quo, thinking it’s business as usual, when it isn’t. This type of complacent thinking will kill your organization.

2. The associated problem is this: People are so over change right now.

Yep, that’s right. What I’m starting to notice is firstly the ubiquity of conversations about change, disruption, the need for agility etc., and secondly, that this ubiquity is leading to people starting to develop a kind of change fatigue.

Side note: Yes, I am very much aware of the irony here, in that I am contributing to this fatigue by writing another blog about change.

Never heard of this change fatigue concept before? That’s OK, because I just made it up, but it’s like the relatively new phenomenon of donor fatigue, which is where people are becoming less inclined to donate to charities because of the increased quantity of charities and the ease with which you can be approached by anyone doing something arduous or admirable to make donations (e.g. via email, social media and crowdfunding websites, etc.).

Fatigue happens when the daily commentary around change reaches saturation point and the audience tends to roll their eyes and stop listening because they think have heard and seen it all before. But the concept of change and change management is nothing new, and in the organizational context it’s been around for ages: John Kotter’s seminal work on leading change (summarized in this HBR article here) is after all 20 years old. But while the concept of change isn’t anything new, the idea of disruption (and it’s younger, more attractive cousin disruptive innovation), is more recent and has transcended from the realm of academia (where it was birthed by Clayton Christensen) to the front pages of tabloid news and the daily vernacular.

And I reckon that people are starting to develop a bit of an aversion to it. While I definitely agree that most if not all business models are ripe for disruption at the moment (the two posterchild examples right now being the taxi industry via Uber and the hotel industry via Airbnb), I think we still need to be sensible in our use of the word, otherwise we run the risk of overusing it and diluting its power.

Australian national broadcaster ABC recently aired a program which featured Australia’s most well-known iron ore mining magnate/entrepreneur Andrew Forrest. One of his former executives was describing how visionary his old boss was and his achievement in establishing a new iron mine as something akin to “Steve Jobs creating the iPhone.” Not quite. That is not disruption.

The problem here is that if we start to succumb to change fatigue, we are likely to become increasingly complacent and resentful of what’s happening around us.

Here’s to being open to change and all the excitement and potential it can bring. But let’s be careful in how we frame our discussion.

About the author:

Patrick Hollingworth is a Leadership Speaker and Senior Leadership Consultant with Executive Development Associates. He works with clients across the globe to help their leaders and teams get comfortable getting uncomfortable in an organizational landscape which is becoming more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous by the day. He is the author of a book entitled The Light & Fast Organization: A New Way of Dealing with Uncertainty, published in 2016.

He is an everyday family man from Sydney, Australia. He’s also a high-altitude mountaineer, and a leadership, teamwork and safety expert. He worked towards his own personal goal of an unguided ascent of Mount Everest for ten years, and in 2010, after a lot of hard work and perseverance, he achieved it.