23/09/10

By Claire West

People today are such busy bodies. Multi-tasking is no longer a skill for the gifted-it’s a fact of life. You only need to take a look around a train during the morning rush hour to see this. Commuting isn’t simply a journey to work, it’s a window of time to tweet, do some pre-meeting preparation and catch up on those e mails from yesterday. Sometimes it feels like you’ve barely blinked since the time before the BlackBerry, before the iPad, before everyone did everything all at once, when everything seemed more manageable, more under control.

The busy commuter train reveals something quite fundamental about change in today’s world. It is increasingly multifaceted, high-speed and fluid. Improvements are no longer isolated developments; they are a constant part of the modern multi-tasker’s life. The fact of the matter is, change has changed.

On inspection it is not hard to see how. Kurt Lewin suggested in 1936 that change can be divided into three stages; unfreezing, change and refreezing. His understanding was that change has a start-point and end-point and that the journey between the two can be managed and controlled.

But, think about it: when did you last come across an organisation, a department or even a team that wasn’t involved in change of some sort? Do you think that you would recognise a contained programme of change in action? Or furthermore, pinpoint the exact moment of its completion? No? Change is quite simply no longer a tangible event that takes place in a project with a clearly defined set of goals. It’s fluid, it’s multi-dimensional and it’s constant.

So, change has changed, the question now, is where does your business fit in? Is it capable of thriving in an environment of constant change? What exactly does it feel like to be a change leader in this environment?

As Tim Connolly, managing director of Ignite, an innovation based consultancy firm explains, “Change is coming at everyone from all directions, but that doesn’t mean it has to be overwhelming. What we do is help organisations steer a way through change — we use the analogy of ‘riding the waves’ — you can no longer hope to effectively project manage change; but you can make it work for you as something fundamental and continuous.”

“Part of this experience is making people feel that they are learning from the changes they are making” continues Connolly, “We ensure that change becomes a core competence within organisations. This means many things; having very clear notions of what success will look like; encouraging all levels of employees to get involved in continuous change and, most importantly, getting the right decisions made by the right people at the right time. It is no longer enough to have the capability to make change; now organisations need the capability to be changing."

Connolly sees this as a new and exciting philosophy for businesses, which could unlock a treasure chest of potential. “Through our ‘CREATE’ approach we have shown how important it is to encourage our clients to think holistically about change. We look beyond change management to the consistent dynamics of leadership, structure and processes. By challenging change as a concept, we have been able to make dramatic transformations; nurturing businesses that are constantly reacting, constantly exploiting opportunities and, most importantly, constantly improving.”

The potential advantages to be wrought by an organisation if they develop such change capabilities are obvious. Companies like 3M (which began life as a mining company) and Virgin have reaped the rewards of morphing to exploit changing market demands. As 3M’s website boasts; “Over 100 years; more than 55,000 products”. However, equally important as changes to products and services is internal change. Whereas previously, transformation of organisational structure or internal processes was hierarchical, and often un-transparent; now, it is all manner of things; initiative based, contributed to at many levels, linking, engaged and flexible. The incentives to stretch an organisation and the opportunities to do so are greater now than they have ever been; all that is needed is the resolve to act on them.

Organisations face all sorts of challenges where radical change is needed — the drive to find efficiencies, fixing ‘broken’ processes, or putting the customer back at the heart of the operation. But making such change no longer has to be part of a contained programme. If a busy commuter train can demonstrate the pace, fluidity and multi-functional nature of change today; so can our organisations. “Only if you can develop an organisation wide capability to be changing” says Connolly “can you truly be in control of riding the wave of change.”