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Business as “Unusual” – Transformational Thinking

In an interview with Newsweek Magazine, Jack Welch, the iconic CEO of General Electric said, “The old days of asking managers for 3 percent productivity gains–you can’t settle for that. You can’t think incrementally–you have to think transformationally.”

While he’s right, this is much easier to say than to do. The challenge is that few people, let alone organizations, understand the mechanics of transformation. Most people have never had a transformation, and surely even less actually know the mechanics of how to “create” one. One of my pet peeves is when I hear someone say they’re going to attend a full day or multi-day seminar on “change” with the goal of “getting one good thing out of it.” Have we become so jaded about our ability to truly transition that we’ll settle for merely learning “one” new concept as significant movement in our quest? This is hardly the stuff of transformation.

The New Year promises many changes, most of which we can’t predict. But there is one undeniable fact. It will be a trying year for businesses who’ve been buoyed for the past decade by a fast-growing economy. The changes in the economy, as well as technology, will force businesses to change or suffer. And it’s the businesses that will embrace this fact on the front end who will survive and even thrive. This will require at least a modest understanding of the mechanics of how individuals and organizations transform. The mechanics of transition for organizations is similar to the mechanics necessary for individuals for the simple reason that businesses are made up of individuals. The first step in either case is that the entity (business or individual) needs to be able to redefine the very way it sees itself and how it relates to everything else in it’s life. This is very difficult and usually requires guidance and coaching. One of the reasons this is difficult is that most people carry the burden of the anchor of their past experiences. In the case of business executives and leaders, they pride themselves on knowing the business better than most. To get them to even consider redefining what they know can be quite a challenge.

One of the ways I do this is by helping them re-frame or re-identify the myths or stories of the organization in a new context. Of course I always have to address their fears of “losing what we have” in regard to their image and/or positioning with their cherished customers or employees. Once the leaders have had the courage and creativity to redefine themselves and the organization, they will face another challenge–getting the employees to understand themselves and their new roles in this new context.

In the coming year, I’ll bet that this will be the number one request I receive from clients. And this year will bring a different dynamic to the game in that there’s a large percentage of the working population who haven’t seen challenging economic times. Unemployment has been so low for so long that they’ve lived in a world that gives signing bonuses to college graduates. Casual days, flex time and sabbaticals aren’t even viewed as “perks” anymore. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very aware that these people can be open to embracing change and transition. I’m merely saying that there will perhaps be a bit of a culture shock that will need to be addressed before any “embracing” will take place.

Like Jack Welch, I encourage business leaders not to take the subject of trans-formation lightly. As Eric Hoffer once said, “In times of change…Learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

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