Oswald Letter

Embracing change may not be easy, but it’s essential

Businesspeople having meeting in conference roomby Dan Oswald

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared that “change is the only constant in life” 2,500 years ago, yet we still have an amazingly difficult time accepting it. Few people like change. Even fewer embrace it. Which makes leading change in an organization exceedingly difficult.

The fear of change is really a fear of the unknown. Employees wonder how the change will affect their jobs. Will it result in more work? Will I be competent to do the changing tasks? Will the change somehow affect my status in the organization?

Change is scary for many, which makes change hard.

Recently, I read the book The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation. Author Vijay Govindarajan asserts that in order for an organization to manage change, it must simultaneously do three things:

  1. Manage the present;
  2. Create the future; and
  3. Selectively forget the past.

It’s the third concept—selectively forget the past—that really got my attention. Wouldn’t it be nice to forget all the mistakes I’ve made in my career? And since I’m “selectively” forgetting the past, I could choose to remember all the successes. It sounds a bit delusional but, I must admit, somewhat appealing.

But that’s not what Govindarajan is talking about. In imploring us to selectively forget the past, he is telling us that a major stumbling block to change is being unable to let “go of yesterday’s values and beliefs that keep the company stuck in the past.” He knows that doing the same thing the same way, even though it has been successful, will prevent an organization from changing and innovating.

Change is scary.

It’s challenging to teach a person something new, especially when the person has been successful at doing what he does for a long time. People don’t want to think about changes that could challenge their effectiveness or render their skillset obsolete.

In his writings, I’ve seen Govindarajan ask why it wasn’t Blockbuster that came up with the concept that we know as Netflix. Blockbuster had a way of doing business that relied on bricks and mortar. They had stores stretched across the country. They had people trained to staff and manage those stores. I’m sure thinking about new ways to reinvent their business was scary to the people who worked at Blockbuster. And I’m certain it was difficult for them to see beyond the way things were being done that had led to their success. Let’s face it, Blockbuster dominated the movie rental scene. Why change?

But all those fears associated with change still became a reality for the Blockbuster employees when Netflix entered the scene. Their entire industry changed, and that forced them to change. Suddenly, the Blockbuster employees had to deal with change that had been thrust upon them. They found themselves scrambling to react to a new competitor and a new way of doing business. They could no longer avoid change. It was now a part of their lives.

Wouldn’t it have been better to have chosen change than to have someone else choose it for you? You see, ignoring change—hoping that it will go away and you can continue doing exactly what you do every day—doesn’t mean change won’t find you. Heraclitus was right, “Change is the only constant in life.” Isn’t it better to embrace change, even with all its scary possibilities?

If you accept that change is the constant, then you can prepare for it—even be a part of it. You can understand how it will affect your job. You will know which skills are critical to your future. You will know how to adapt and evolve in order to remain valuable and relevant to your organization. And you can help your company create the future by selectively forgetting the past.