When Change Goes Wrong

Jeff Cole

Much of our attention is spent on driving effective change in our organizations. However, we are sometimes on the receiving end of a change – for better or worse. This month, columnist Jeff Cole explores tips for dealing with change gone wrong.

As management or quality professionals, many of us are trained to look at life through the filer of FMEA, determining where the largest sources of risk are and proactively acting to reduce that risk. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, changes come out of left field to surprise us. Things on the periphery of our radar that seemed entirely unlikely become reality. Situations previously deemed unfeasible, illogical, or nearly impossible are suddenly very real and in our face. You probably use phrases like unbelievable, not in a million years, I never saw this coming …, etc. to describe what you are witnessing.

In recent times, it may feel like most of these changes are of a negative type. Economic and market collapses, job loss, closure, bankruptcy. Often brutal, often sudden, they throw a monkey wrench into Plan A and often demolish backup plans B and C. This drives some firms into a reactionary mode. Logic and all past rules are out the window. "Survival" becomes the new "Growth". "Flat" becomes the new "up". How is a person to deal with such changes on a personal level let alone a business level?

It really hits home when the change impacts you personally. It’s important that you bounce back from that change. It’s hard to make sound decisions when in a state of shock or depression from a major change. Experts advise that you take care of yourself physically, and on the mental side stay positive, focus on your desired outcomes, stay open-minded to different ways of doing things, and proactively scan your environment for risks to mitigate and opportunities to leverage. While you may have zero control over a seemingly illogical decision headquarters just made, you do have absolute control over how you respond to any change. (and it’s often in your best interest to respond professionally no matter what.) Author Daryl Conner once wrote "We have the chance to be either architects or victims of our future." While one chapter in part of your life may have ended, you have a rather large say in writing the next chapter. For some, that next chapter simply writes itself. For many it may be the most difficult chapter they write in their life story.

If you are running a business, not only is it important for you and your management team to personally bounce back from a bad change, you have to do it quickly so you can help the rest of the organization recover. A fundamental character attribute of successful managers is best depicted by a Japanese proverb that says "Fall down seven times, get up eight". Stay nimble through synch-point planning. Explore the creativity techniques of Roger Von Oech or Edward de Bono for fresh ways to respond to problems. Reinvention, Concentric Diversification, Lateral Thinking all become powerful tools in your arsenal. If you are not familiar with FMEA (Failure Modes and Effects Analysis), get familiar quickly. This thought process will help you become more proactive toward current and future risks in your business environment. You will get through the change one way or another. And when the dust settles on the change, it’s time for a management meeting on the topic of how you responded to the unforeseen change. What lessons did you learn that you can apply to the next nasty surprise lurking around the corner?

Certainly not all change is bad. Some changes are wonderful. Change is, nonetheless, ever-present. The more skilled you become in the process of anticipating and adapting to change the better your chances are of being an architect vs. a victim.

There is a classic riddle that applies to change. A lily pad appears in a pond one day. Each day the number of lily pads doubles to the point that on day 30 the pond is full. On what day is the pond half-full? Answer: Day 29. Change sneaks up on us that way, and we are living our Day 29. The amount of change you will have to deal with going forward would astonish your parents and grandparents! What are you doing to prepare for Day 30?