The only thing certain in today’s world is change. It is inevitable and defines the world we live in, and the rate of change is increasing exponentially. Even in 2001, futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote that every decade, our overall rate of progress was doubling: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).”
Why Change Is Necessary
Back in the 1990s, I worked for a large oil company as a computer-aided draftsman. The majority of the people on our floor were hand draftsman, and I remember telling quite a few of them that should learn computer-aided drafting. From most, the response was the same: They defended what they were doing and said hand drafting would never go away.
Within the next two years, they were all replaced with computer-aided draftsman.
At a personal and organizational level, change helps us remain relevant and is necessary for success, growth and progress.
Why Change Is Difficult
Change brings with it a lot of mixed emotions and uncertainty, followed by resistance — but why? Is it just bad attitudes and a fixed mindset? On the contrary, the brain is trained for the familiar, conditioned to survive and wired to avoid consequences that could result in any sort of pain, even in the short term. As a result, the brain sees change as a threat.
Dr. Andrea Derler and Dr. Jennifer Ray of the NeuroLeadership Institute write, “Our brains have evolved to really like certainty, which stems from our basic drive to survive. We have evolved to predict and control our circumstances because doing so optimizes our ability to live. When we experience change, our brains can interpret it as a ‘threat’ or as a ‘challenge.’”
How We Can Adapt
The good news is that our brain, like our muscles, can be conditioned, but it starts with a positive attitude toward change. Like everything else, developing this attitude takes practice. We can exercise our brain to be more receptive to change. By doing so we improve our brain’s ability to form new connections and pathways — a process called neuroplasticity. There is even evidence suggesting that physical exercise may trigger processes that facilitate neuroplasticity.
We can help our organizations become better at changing, too. David Gliecher’s formula for change, which was refined Katie Dannmiller, identifies three factors that must be present for change to take place in an organization. The formula is “C = D x V x F > R,” where C is change, D is dissatisfaction with the current state, V is the vision of what’s possible and F is the first concrete steps that the organization can take toward the vision. According to this formula, for change to be possible, the product of these three factors must be greater than R, or resistance.
As an organization, then, we can help to facilitate change by ensuring that we provide:
- Clear communications on why change is necessary.
- A clear and positive vision on what is possible if the change occurs.
- Concrete steps on achieving the vision.
What is the role of learning? As SAP’s new chief learning officer, Max Wessel, says, “In times of disruption, learning is leverage.”
The question is, how do we leverage learning to help drive real change? As philosopher Eric Hoffer said, “In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.”
Applying Gliecher and Dannmiller’s formula for change, here’s how learning can offset employees’ resistance to change:
- Ensure alignment of the learning strategy to organizational goals.
- Provide communication, clarity and enablement around the need for change and a positive vision for the future.
- Upskill leaders to be change champions to effectively prepare their staff on the change ahead.
- Provide clear steps, by role, for adapting to the change and achieving the vision (including enablement, resources and toolkits).
- Provide a social conduit for change — a safe place for employees to share issues and concerns.
In business, adaptability is necessary for survival and sustainability, and at its core are the skills and knowledge of an adaptive workforce. Learning is an integral and necessary part of change and adaptability. It can offset the resistance to change and should be central to an organization’s continued success.