2020 provided indisputable evidence to support the old adage that change is the only constant. The perimeters of organizational life shifted almost overnight as the quick pivot to remote work erased boundaries between home and office. Things are continuing to shift as long-term remote work has become the reality for many, with one in six workers projected to continue working from home full or part time even after the pandemic is over. For others, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered entire career transitions in the wake of massive organizational restructurings, downsizings and closings that have left some 10 million employees without a job since the beginning of the pandemic.
Leading in these turbulent times requires not only embracing change but fundamentally rethinking it. With nearly every industry having been disrupted in some form over the past year, and the promise of continued turbulence ahead, leaders are realizing that the classic theories and models of change are no longer sufficient to address the sustained change in our modern world.
Historically, approaches to change have been grounded in management theories that were designed to handle clearly defined technical issues that were typical in the early 20th-century industrial workplace. The enduring legacy of the principles of scientific management that guided the industrial age has been a mindset that change is something to be “managed,” with a distinct beginning and end.
As The Change Lab’s “2020 Workplace Report” found, however, it is time that leaders update their views of change to more appropriately reflect the reality of complex and continuous disruption that faces organizations today. Rather than considering change a discrete event, leaders need to embrace the reality that change is actually a continuous development process, often without a definite conclusion. With this updated concept of change, leaders can then shift their energy from trying to control change to creating cultures of resilience and reinvention.
Embracing the Possibility of Change With a Reinvention Mindset
As Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva, a global thought leader in the domain of organizational reinvention, says, “Change is not a punishment. It is the ultimate freedom to make a choice.” In her book “The Chief Reinvention Officer: How to Thrive in Chaos,” she goes on to define the reinvention mindset in a variety of ways, summarizing it practically as “a systemic approach of engaging in healthy cycles of renewal, building on the past to ensure current and future viability.”
The reinvention mindset Zhexembayeva outlines involves five fundamental flips of our traditional change script:
- Recognizing that change is constant.
- Breaking norms before somebody else does.
- Building a system for proactive reinvention.
- Retaining the best of the old while fostering the new.
- Thinking ahead to build up tomorrow.
If these shifts represent the “what” of the reinvention mindset, let’s consider how leaders can cultivate this evolved mindset not only in themselves but across their organization.
Appreciative Inquiry: An Approach for Cultivating Resilience and Reinvention
Appreciative inquiry (AI) has been turning the old idea of organizational change on its head for the past 30 years and provides a generative framework for today’s leaders in the creation of resilient, reinvention-minded cultures. Rather than starting with a focus on what is wrong in their organization, AI invites leaders to ask what is working and how they can scale successes. Simply put, AI invites leaders to intentionally ask what they want to accelerate and grow, with the realization that what we appreciate, appreciates.
Translating the core principles of AI into guiding leadership practices, there are several actions that can help leaders alter how they approach change and embrace a reinvention mindset:
1. Leading With Questions
Leadership is not about having the answers anymore; it is all about asking the right questions. Asking questions that help inspire possibility and invite new thinking helps us move forward in times of uncertainty.
Rather than asking questions about what they don’t want (i.e., “What is wrong here, and how do we fix it?”), appreciative inquiry invites leaders to ask questions about what they do want (i.e., “What do we want tomorrow to look like, and how can we create it?”). This approach shifts conversations from diagnosing and fixing the past to imagining and building the future.
2. Co-creating With Stakeholders — Including Customers
If modern leadership is all about asking questions, those questions need to be asked with, and answered by, all the stakeholders in a system. By engaging the diverse voices in an organization, leaders can lift up the wisdom that is distributed across their system. Doing so not only leads to more robust solutions; it also helps build commitment for those solutions, because people commit to what they help co-create.
Organizations that are successfully pivoting amid the pandemic realize that this engagement extends to employees and customers. Bringing the customer voice into processes helps inform the customer while keeping the organization close to what customers want and need as the world changes. The principle of wholeness from AI reminds leaders that change is always more effective when the whole system is engaged.
3. Prototyping and Pivoting
It is also important to begin turning the ideas generated through inquiry and stakeholder engagement into action. One way to do so is by prototyping and pivoting. Rather than waiting for the perfect new product or process, leaders can roll out beta tests and experiment with pilot projects. Getting concepts “out there” for people to see and interact with helps leaders move away from the old mindset that a change initiative is neat and tidy. Instead, they can lean into a continual reinvention mindset where they take action, learn from it and pivot to the next iteration.
4. Leveraging Strengths
In every system, there are strengths and assets to leverage. As Peter Drucker, one of the most prolific and influential scholars of management, wrote, “The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.”
Creating a culture of reinvention is much easier when teams have building blocks to work with. Appreciative inquiry invites leaders to actively seek and connect the strengths in the people around them. By uncovering and aligning the strengths of individuals and teams — and across their entire organization — leaders can lift up what is working as a starting point for building the new. This approach feels better than focusing on weaknesses and enhances creative and decision-making capacities. After all, when we are in positive affective states, our cognitive processing is improved.
The good news is that leaders can cultivate and strengthen a reinvention mindset through intentional training and practice. Building skills and approaches like design thinking, a growth mindset, inclusive engagement, collaborative partnering and storytelling for success can enhance this mindset.
In order to thrive in today’s disruptive world, leaders must adopt a reinvention mindset that ensures all stakeholders are involved in and committed to co-creating improvements for today and tomorrow. Leadership is no longer about driving toward a known outcome; it is about continuously unleashing new possibilities.
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.