Far too many companies are ignoring the need to adapt to change. The reasons may all be valid; high costs, work disruption, periods of chaos, past successes, resistance, fear, etc. But in the current competitive environment, an organization’s ability to adapt to change is a requirement in order to thrive. The topic of organization change is multifaceted and complex. For the purpose of this blog series, the significance of deep change and its role in creating thriving organizations will be examined.

Deep Change For Long-Term Impact

Deep change is far more profound than the incremental change often implemented to address symptoms rather than the root cause. Deep change is about long-term, evolutionary change. It is about engaging in a process that can lead to unique organizational competencies and competitive advantage. In his book Deep Change, Robert E. Quinn refers to the decision a company makes when faced with change as either adapting to it or taking the road to slow death. Incremental changes result in some improvements but fail to sustain new behavior, arouse motivation, stimulate creativity or inspire purpose. The speed of change today requires people to brave new frontiers and not be hindered by artificial boundaries that no longer serve the organization. It is about taking risks to discover unique potential and to venture into the unknown to create what does not exist.

The Answers Lie Outside Our Comfort Zone

There is no question that the price of change is high. We have to face the unknown and let go of the control we think we have. Change can be painful and lead to unexpected outcomes, some of which may not be what we want. Because of the high price of change, few take on the challenge. Fear of stepping outside our comfort zone keeps us rooted where we are, asleep or in a state of dissatisfaction, frustration, and mediocrity. But the price for refusing to engage in the process of deep change is, in my opinion, much steeper. According to Quinn, the price is slow death; an experience that leads to feelings of helplessness, anger, and burnout as we inevitably move toward the feared outcome.

On a personal note, I, too, have faced the choice of deep change or slow death. I was young and lacked courage so I stayed with what I thought was emotionally less painful. In so doing I lost touch with my true self, was unable to live my life to its fullest with purpose. Years later I was presented with another opportunity to choose. I came to realize that the deep change I avoided years earlier, though disguised, came back to haunt me. This time I chose to embark on a journey of deep change.

This first conscious experience with deep change put me on a path of learning about how it fosters growth. Don’t get me wrong, I still struggle with decisions that shake up my status quo and I often end up choosing the easiest way out. When I don’t get the results I’d hoped for, I know I need to re-evaluate my situation. That is just part of what it means to be human.

Those who, despite their fears, have taken a leap of faith to venture “naked into the land of uncertainty” achieve confidence in their abilities to face change. They take key learnings from these experiences into other facets of their personal and professional lives. These change agents can be found at any level, eager for the opportunity to share their knowledge about the process of deep change to positively impact their organization.

I have worked for a number of organizations that failed, despite their stated desire to make deep change. It was an experience that helped me live through and understand the forces that keep the status quo firmly in place. These companies chose slow death; it was reflected in their unengaged workforce, poor performance, lack of innovation, and commodity positioning.

Go Slow In Order To Go Fast.

Managers and executives want a quick and easy fix so they and their employees can focus on their daily tasks. I’ve heard many say that they don’t have time to engage in a change process because they are too busy with their work. Yet, meeting the needs of a changing, competitive market is a vital part of the job. What they fail to realize is that ignoring the need to change only postpones the inevitable crisis looming on the horizon.

The phenomenon of task pursuit is about being busy with tasks that give us the false impression that we are being productive. As long as we feel we are working hard and tasks are being completed, we are moving forward. But what are we avoiding by burying ourselves in task-oriented work? Falling back on the usual paradigms and scripts that have worked in the past provides a sense of security and control. When the results are less than satisfactory the tendency is to work harder and get more done. When this strategy fails, we feel a sense of alienation.

Further, the complexity of today’s problems is beyond the individual’s ability to solve them. The collective intelligence of the organization and beyond is required to reach past what is known in order to innovate.

Deep Change Is Top Down.

One organization I worked with that journeyed through deep change did so after years of stagnation and the threat of bankruptcy. The defining factor was the top leader’s commitment to do what was necessary to save the fifty year-old company. His style was empathetic to the pain of change his organization was suffering but he was unwavering in his resolve to move forward. His visionary leadership led the organization through deep change and innovation that secured the company’s future.

Deep change requires visionary leadership that can engage the hearts and minds of people at all levels of the organization. As the manager of teams engaged in change, I understood the importance of being a role model for the change, asking of my employees only what I already asked of myself. This type of leadership rallies individuals and teams to contribute the best of themselves and fully participate to make a difference.

Deep Change Is Bottom Up.

A process of deep change for the organization is inevitably a process of deep change at the personal level. Each individual has beliefs, fears, scripts, and experiences that affect who they are and how they behave. As demands for deep change arise in the work environment, each person will have to choose whether to accept the challenge, not only on a professional level but on a personal level too.

The organization, which is made up of individuals, can only change as the collective begins to shift. Organizational systems such as corporate culture, corporate politics, corporate taboos, and unspoken rules impact the collective’s ability to accept change. Time needs to be set aside for reflection and dialogue to create new paradigms that shift organizational systems.

To Change, Or Not To Change?

Though there are compelling motives for engaging in deep change, unfortunately it is rarely a process undertaken willingly in foresight. It is often a choice we make when in a state of desperation and frustration. That choice disrupts the status quo, requiring faith and courage to confront uncertainty. Though there are no guarantees, the lessons learned are invaluable. By moving through uncharted territory we are met with possibilities that shape a new vision. We face choices and acquire knowledge that help us grow. This powerful process leads to feeling aligned, empowered and inspired; it leads to innovation.

So why is change of any kind, let alone deep change, such a challenge? In part two of this series we examine what makes deep change so difficult in organizations and what forces are at play to maintain the status quo.

By Paola Graziani
Principal Consultant
Altimum IMS