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Change Only Hurts When It's Irrational

Change Only Hurts When It’s Irrational

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is often summarized as: the survival of the fittest. But, in fact, Darwin’s conclusion was that those who survive aren’t necessarily the fittest – they are the most adaptable. As a leader, one of your most valuable characteristics is your capacity for change.

Change is constant. But many of us don’t cope with it particularly well. We frequently come across change in our work lives that we struggle to understand… and what we don’t understand, we often fear. 

When I first took the reins as CEO of CS Energy, the company was in a lot of trouble. Everywhere I looked, the business was broken (starting with the balance sheet). There were a lot of good people, working with the best of intentions. But it was a company run by engineers, for engineers. There was very little commercial acumen being applied.

And, to be perfectly frank, the culture was terrible. There was little goodwill between management and the heavily unionized workforce. Knowledge was power, and the most senior people anchored their identity in their expert power. Their status, respect, and influence was deeply rooted in how much they knew about the technical workings of power stations. 

In Peter Senge’s parlance, It was a knowing organization, not a learning organization. And, I knew that would have to change, if the company was to have any chance of turning around its woeful performance.

Yet, despite what I thought was a systemic lack of change and progress, everywhere I went, I would hear lower-level leaders tell me that their people were “change fatigued”.

Seriously?! How was that possible? How can you be change-fatigued when clearly nothing has changed for a really, really long time!? 

What I came to understand, was that I didn’t really know what change fatigue was. I assumed it was people becoming worn down by continual waves of change… changes to strategy, structure, targets, and leadership.

But this fatigue doesn’t come from the volume of change. One of the definitions of change fatigue is “A sense of apathy or passive resignation to organizational change.” It’s driven by change that’s unfocused, uninspired, and unsuccessful – in other words, irrational change!

I’ve had the opportunity to study a number of change management frameworks and processes over the years: from John Kotter’s classic 8 steps, to ADKAR and neuro-linguistic programming. But I feel as though these frameworks begin with an assumption that few people stop to question. That is, that the change actually makes sense.

Unfortunately, often, the change doesn’t make sense. I frequently saw changes driven from the top down, with very little consultation between the people who were designing the changes, and the people who actually had to make the changes work.

This leaves a workforce cynical and disengaged. You don’t have to do this very often to make your people feel as though their opinions don’t count, and that there’s no opportunity for them to influence outcomes for the better. And that frustration eventually becomes despair.

Even when the intent of the change is sound, it’s often undermined by poor leadership:

  • Lack of detailed planning
  • Unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved with existing resources 
  • Not managing the integration of the change program with the existing work program
  • Lack of focus on the value proposition of the change
  • Not listening to feedback from the people
  • Failure to communicate what’s important and why?

In an environment like this, it feels like change for change’s sake… and it’s a failure of leadership, pure and simple. Just as CS Energy’s problems were a failure of leadership. 

I’m not saying that my leadership fundamentally changed the culture, or the relationship between management and the workforce at CS Energy. Far from it! But I did enough to radically change the performance outcomes.

I’d like to think that the vast majority of that was the result of driving rational change.

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