Thursday, March 27, 2008

Change Management 11: Certain Misery or the Misery of Uncertainty

Change Management 11: Certain Misery or the Misery of Uncertainty

Small changes can lead to big changes. We don’t need a treatise on Chaos Theory to observe that changing systems are nonlinear. Each variable in the change environment exponentially affects the outcome. For example, a simple three-variable closed environment will yield 6 permutations, while 6 variables will yield 720 possible outcomes. In this field, sometimes it’s best not to count past three! It’s this unwieldy number of possible outcomes that leads us to the creative insight. The former Soviet Union went to great lengths to control this type of creative insight by controlling variables. Control was their thing, after all, and they suffocated from lack of creative adaptation to change. Today, countries and companies go to great lengths to foster the creativity inherent in change.

Embracing creativity is essentially the only way a business can adapt to the constantly changing business environment. Unfortunately, in the face of organizational change, many individuals, departments and corporate cultures still retreat into the unhealthy and limiting defense mechanism of over-control, even when it stifles the very process of creative adaptation. As a successful leader in change, you must be comfortable with a multitude of unknown variables and outcomes. If you are not, then you risk the misery of controlling an ever-increasing number of possible outcomes. Remember, only 6 variables produce 720 possible outcomes. This is a lot of plates to keep spinning-not to mention the no-confidence vote you’re giving your creative problem solvers. Creative team members just don’t react all that well to manipulation and stifling over-control.

The very first exercise the leader must undertake is a thorough inventory of his or her fears. Look at the worst case scenarios first. Once you have a good long list, brainstorm them with the team. If worst case scenario number one occurs, what are the creative recourses? If you let your team run free with ideas for an hour or so, you might be surprised at the far-reaching and pleasantly unexpected results. What you are doing here is fear (negative outcome) control. If you’re going to lead through a period of change, you must know thyself, and particularly your fears.

Predictability and ambiguity are two dynamic forces working in constant opposition. In an active change situation, predictability tends to contract while ambiguity expands. In dynamic situations, leaders can become fearful of an explosion of ambiguity (too many options). In attempting to control this, they inadvertently implode due to the repression of creativity (à la the Former Soviet Union). In the heat of battle it’s easy to forget that it's always much easier to tone down a overly creatively solution than to spruce up a dull one (known as the lipstick on a pig solution).

It’s not part of our macho, action hero culture to admit to fear and possible negative outcomes, but this is what must be done. Get the team together and get those fears on the flip chart and allow the creativity to flow. This exercise is an exceptionally powerful way to unify the team. What usually happens is that many of these fears are unfounded or easily solved by the collective open creativity of the team.

Ian Glickman, Ph.D.

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