2015 Institutional Innovation Report
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Change and Resistance to Change: Lessons Learned
Starting with these real world examples, Roundtable participants explored the main barriers to change, particularly within large, established companies that often have long histories of success. The same is true for individuals within these organizations: people who have been the most successful, who have accumulated the most institutional knowledge and developed the strongest operational skills, are often the most resistant to change.
Vivek Kundra stated that most organizations are hardwired not to change. Greg Folley, Chief Analytics and Innovation Officer at Caterpillar, Inc., added that big companies often see more risk in changing how they operate than not changing—even though persisting in operating linearly in an exponential world may well be a “recipe for oblivion.” Sonny Garg of Uptake who has had a long career working in the energy industry, commented that employers have created a “pinstripe assembly line,” commoditizing workers, treating them all as interchangeable and replaceable. HR Departments are typically designed to build a homogeneous workforce, which entails isolating and eliminating divergent thinkers (human “unicorns”) who can cause disruption. As a result, some three-quarters of workers describe themselves as “disengaged” from their jobs and therefore have little reason to take on challenging assignments or welcome change. Rather than discarding unicorns among their workers, organizations need to learn to recognize them and give them opportunities to take on challenging projects with visible impact.
Some types of organizations, particularly those in the public sector, are particularly resistant to change. Jon Wilkins, Managing Director of the Federal Communications Commission, noted that the average employee tenure in that agency is 26 years, and the prime goal for most civil servants is to “avoid making mistakes” that can cause trouble. Harold Levy, Executive Director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, pointed out that the field of K-12 education is “incredibly resistant to change,” in part because those who are attracted to the teaching profession tend to be people who often do not want to change. And the fact that teaching remains a heavily unionized sector of the economy provides a strong mechanism for resisting change. Another vast area that has been highly resistant to change is health care. According to Kelvin Westbrook, President and CEO of KRW Advisors and Chairman of BJC Healthcare in St. Louis, the mindset of healthcare providers is much like that of government workers: there is no downside to being risk-averse. In fact, saying no to change is often the best strategy for insuring career longevity.
A counterexample of a governmental entity that has embraced change is the military, which is probably the branch of government with the strongest sense of mission, one that involves responding quickly to constantly changing threats. John Seely Brown noted that the military has been one of earliest and most enthusiastic supporters of the development of accelerated learning.
Several participants pointed out that understanding how large organizations actually operate is critical for any attempts to bring about change. For example, it may not be realistic or even desirable to attempt to create a culture of continuous learning for everyone within an organization. Large organizations are rarely homogeneous, and some parts may be more receptive to change than others. Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute, pointed out that big organizations are typically made up of different tribes—salespeople, IT staff, senior management—each of which has its own codes and its own vocabulary. In fact, there is a lot of creativity within tribes. And workers are often members of multiple tribes. For an organization to change rapidly, everyone needs to be able to see a common purpose across their tribes, which may involve creating a common vocabulary. Rather than attempting to come up with a single grand vision for the future, organizations may be better off taking small steps that can lead to something larger, teaching people to work across boundaries through small wins that respect the dynamism of the different tribes.
Laura Ipsen, Senior Vice President of the Industry Solutions Group at Oracle, added that HR is an important piece of the equation when it comes to enabling change, transforming the workforce and driving job satisfaction at all levels. But HR organizations can often times become mechanical and detached from the real business goals, and, many rewards and recognition programs do not recognize the ‘unicorns’—the doers and innovative thinkers who drive needed change. For example, programs that focus exclusively on “what” rather than “how” fail to see that “how” things get done can be the most magical part of transformation even if controversial. Companies that find unique ways to recognize and empower their unicorns will stand a better chance of surviving disruption.
If fundamental change requires “unlearning,” that can represent another obstacle to transformation. Andy Billings, Vice President, Profitable Creativity at Electronic Arts, stated that recent discoveries in neuroscience suggest that there is actually no such thing as unlearning, just new learning layered on top of old learning. In addition, people tend to over-respond to the prospect of loss compared to the prospects of gains. People really do not want to fail. And people do not want to hear bad news. As the novelist John Barth once wrote, “All true self knowledge is bad news. If it were good news, you’d already know it.”
John Pittenger, Senior Vice President for Corporate Strategy at Koch Industries, added that neuroscience has also shown that people are hardwired to stay alive, and that when threatened, they react with fear and alarm, which are rarely conducive to pursuing systematic change. Crises are often necessary ingredients to trigger change, and the practice of crisis management is well established. But how does one bring about change in the absence of a visible crisis?
Given all of these barriers, it is not surprising that the majority of change efforts fail. A critical success factor may be finding the right language to describe the changes that are necessary, or that the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of undertaking change. John Clippinger, CEO of MIT’s ID3, cited his experience in working with two industries facing massively disruptive change: the banking industry, which could be made obsolete by crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin, and the newspaper industry which has already been disrupted by the rise of digital media. In both cases, survival may depend on the ability of industry participants to let go of long-held beliefs and reimagine who they are: What role might banks play when currency is digital, virtual and decentralized? What is the future of journalism in a world in which bloggers have as much prestige and trust as professional reporters? Clippinger suggested that the ability to come up with good answers to these questions depends on finding and articulating a “massively transformative purpose” that identifies a positive opportunity that can motivate and align people around a big change. And rather than having all of the answers, it may be more useful for leaders to be asking the right questions as a means of redirecting attention from the threats to opportunities.
John Seely Brown concluded the discussion by pointing out three additional factors that can serve as effective catalysts to accelerate change. First is the power of mobile, which is rapidly becoming the dominant global medium. The concept that “mobile is first” has already gained wide acceptance in places like Asia, even while recognition of its central role has been slower in Western countries. What makes mobile important is its role as a connector and a “curiosity amplifier” that empowers individuals in new ways. Second, we may be underestimating the impact of a variety of “exponential technologies.” Smart algorithms are emerging that are making it easier to design teams that amplify group intelligence and enhance serendipity. Findings from the field of neurolinguistic programming are helping us to understand how the same thing can be heard differently by different people, a result that can be used to custom tailor learning experiences. Re-conceptualizing learning to focus leading students on their own epiphanies, which can bring about rapid shifts in perception and that are never forgotten, is far more powerful than traditional instructional techniques that are based on simply conveying a body of information. The third factor is the potential role of play as a path to innovation. For young people, play is perhaps the most important lens for understanding the world. As we grow up, we define work and play as mutually exclusive. But there is great power in bringing the two back together.