CHALLENGE! HARNESSING THE CREATIVE FORCE OF HARDSHIP
When we talk about change and change management we’re typically dealing with things such as organisational restructures, new IT systems, office moves, and so on.
But it’s instructive to look at the processes of change in a broader context. And when it comes to change in human affairs, you can’t go much broader than the growth and decline of civilisations.
Change … and the Rise of Civilisations
Arnold J Toynbee's landmark A Study of History – a seminal work on the topic – provides guidance here.
Toynbee's thesis is that civilisations arose not because conditions were conducive to their development, but for the opposite reason: that a community was confronted with hardship – a major challenge – to which they responded creatively. In rising to overcome this adversity new civilisations were generated and major leaps in the development of human society occurred.
For example, ancient Egypt developed when nomadic people, forced by climactic factors, moved to the Lower Nile Valley, clearing and irrigating otherwise formless and formidable jungle swamps. The ditches, embankments and fields they created saw their transformation from food gatherers and hunters into cultivators, and started the great Egyptian civilisation on its journey. The Sumerians had a similar start in the lower valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. The Mayan civilisation had to confront the taming of the rich lowlands of the tropical forest.
Secondary civilisations which arose out of older civilisations faced the challenge of finding their own identity and breaking away from dominant and oppressive regimes in decline which were fighting to maintain their authority.
Challenge and Response
It's a powerful notion that something as formative and all-encompassing as the genesis of a new civilisation would be the product of struggle rather than favourable conditions. As Toynbee states: ease is inimical to civilisation. A whole section of his work is titled ‘The Virtues of Adversity’.
The learning from this, the liberating aspect, is that pain and discomfort is normal in change. It is to be expected and met head-on. Change is not a genteel, smooth process. Disruption and hardship are part-and-parcel of the genesis of something that is genuinely new. Growing pains are part of growth.
I contend that the same applies – notwithstanding the difference in scale – in our management change efforts. There is stakeholder resistance, threats to the budget, senior management exits and entries, problems with technology, staffing issues … the list goes on. Adversity is part-and-parcel of a change effort. Of course we ought to do our best to foresee these and manage them to the best of our ability with risk management planning, stakeholder analyses, clear and consistent communications and so on.
But there will still be trials and tribulations. The creativity and perseverance of our response is key, and shapes the final outcome. Expressed like that, it sounds like a statement of the bleeding obvious. Yet how often in the midst of a change effort do we complain how difficult it all is, that there are so many obstacles, that it’s all too hard?
Welcome to the game. No-one said it was going to be easy.
It takes grit and nous to pull off a change effort. Resistance isn’t the enemy of change: half-heartedness is. More change efforts have foundered for want of a champion to drive them through in the face of resistance, than because there was resistance.
And of course there’s resistance! Resources are being reallocated, there is inconvenience, some folk are winners while others are losers, demands are made of people who would rather just have a quiet life.
We just have to reach down, find extra resources within ourselves and each other, and then plot, scheme and manoeuvre to drive the change home.
It’s not an exercise for the faint-of-heart.
Provide Leadership, Enlist Loyalty
In one striking passage, Toynbee summarises – almost as a throwaway – what’s involved in successful change.
Referring to the way the Christian Church inhabited the hollowing shell of the declining Roman Empire, Toynbee noted that 'the Empire fell and the Church survived just because the Church gave leadership and enlisted loyalty whereas the Empire had long failed to do either the one or the other'.
Provide leadership and enlist loyalty. As a nut-shelled version of the task of the change champion (and indeed, the strategic manager) you could do a lot worse.
There is a fundamental linkage between change and leadership: leadership is a critical precondition for change in human affairs.
This applies more particularly in the negative: it's well-established that the absence of senior management commitment (a key facet of leadership) has been repeatedly identified as the single most important factor explaining the failure of organisational change initiatives.
Provide leadership. Enlist loyalty.
Create Your Own Challenges
There is one other vital aspect of challenge and response related to change, but one related to success already accomplished. Complacency is the enemy of success in the same way half-heartedness is the enemy of change. Success can breed its own downfall. To quote Toynbee again: ‘Nothing fails like success’. A vigilant receptiveness to identifying the boundaries of your situation and an ability to constantly create the new is required if development and growth are to occur.
Put another way, it’s necessary to construct new challenges that continually reinvigorate an enterprise (or a society).
I know of no better exemplar of this than the computer animation film studio Pixar, which produced such hits as Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up and Cars. It’s a highly successful company that hasn’t missed a beat. There’s a reason for that: their leadership team have actively and deliberately etched out a corporate culture which encourages candour, risk-taking, giving non-hierarchical feedback, the active embracing of new ideas, and the pushing of artistic and technological boundaries.
Here’s how the President of Pixar, Ed Catmull described it:
… it’s extremely difficult for an organisation to analyse itself. It is uncomfortable and hard to be objective. Systematically fighting complacency and uncovering problems when your company is successful have got to be two of the toughest management challenges there are. Clear values, constant communication, routine post-mortems, and the regular injection of outsiders who will challenge the status quo aren’t enough. Strong leadership is also essential—to make sure people don’t pay lip service to the values, tune out the communications, game the processes, and automatically discount newcomers’ observations and suggestions.
Sound familiar? Confronting challenges; a conscious effort to overcome the ‘success trap’ of complacency; strong leadership – the same challenge and response aspects identified by Toynbee.
In this light, it’s worthwhile re-envisioning the way we use KPIs and their targets: rather than being just another piece of monthly management reportage, they instead represent a threshold which, if reached, define the accomplishment of a pre-set challenge for the unit or organisation. Not just a data point, but a constant challenge to the performance standard of which an organisation is capable.
It may not be the genesis of a new civilisation, but it’s salutary to know that setting our own challenges, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone, draws from the same wellspring of human creative response, and can lead to the birth of something new and distinctive.
Director I Michael Carman Consulting
PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374
Ed Catmull (2008) 'How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity' Harvard Business Review September.
Arnold J. Toynbee (1987) A Study of History - Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell, Oxford University Press
© Michael Carman 2017