“Everyone wants better, no one wants change”.
Throughout my career I have been fortunate to experience lots of extreme change and business transformation, both as a team member and as a leader. For starters, when I kicked off my career in the Eighties, we had no emails, no internet and no one had mobile phones! Through buyouts, M&A’s and turning non-performing businesses around, I have learnt huge amounts about how important it is to identify and understand the different ways in which people behave when change happens to the business around them, and more importantly themselves.
Change is a constant, but why does it seem like businesses are always looking to change? Business leaders never seek change for change’s sake. They seek change in the pursuit of “Better”. No one in their right mind would disrupt their business, to make things worse. Change can be tough for everyone. As the saying goes, ‘the only people that really embrace change are babies with dirty nappies!’ But for the purpose of this article we will replace the word “Change” with “Better”.
We all want to work for great companies. One of my favourite business books is Jim Collins “Good To Great”, where the opening line is “The enemy of Great is Good”. The thinking behind this line is that when we are good at something, most of us accept it, and to go the extra mile, to strive for Great is a step too far for most. The reason for pursuing ‘Better’ in business is to seek the path from Good to Great, incrementally.
When we strive for ‘Better’ in business, there’s always winners and losers! Some people will thrive from the changes and their careers will go into overdrive, some may not really feel a direct impact, and others may unfortunately be casualties from the change. For a new strategy to be effective, it needs to be embraced, and for those who can’t or won’t embrace the change, there is usually a crossroad. They either leave by their own accord, or when leaders are brave enough to do the right thing for the bigger business, they are let go!
The way great leaders lead is all about the people in the business. Clients, projects and performance all fall into place if you get your people and the culture right. To quote Jim Collins, “In fact, leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances, the right people need to be on the bus in the right seats for it work.”
In every situation I have experienced, those that thrive during the pursuit of ‘Better’ embrace the new strategy, and those that struggle, usually harp back to the old ways (normally with rose-coloured spectacles), even when the old way was killing the team, morale, culture, and business performance. This nostalgic view of an idealised past is summed up perfectly by Alan R. Hirsch in his report, “Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding,”:
“a longing for a sanitised impression of the past, what in psychoanalysis is referred to as a screen memory — not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process all negative emotions filtered out.”
The team who struggles with the changes remembers it this way. Maybe they were in their comfort zone, left alone and probably unaccountable. This new way of working can be uncomfortable, and therefore, in their opinion, won’t work.
So, where does Thanos, the Universe’ ultimate baddy from the Avengers come into it? I recently revisited the film, and on this viewing, I noticed the ultimate baddie, Thanos, said a line that I hadn’t really took much notice of before. It got me thinking about striving for ‘Better’ and how people deal with it.
First, a quick summary of Avengers Infinity War (Spoiler warning!). Thanos has a theory that civilisations across the universe are destroying all resources and killing any hope for a sustainable future. If he collects all the Infinity Stones (stones with special powers), he will gain ultimate power and be able to ‘snap’ his fingers and randomly and indiscriminately destroy half of every living thing in the universe. His view is that this will bring balance back to the universe, if half the population are not over consuming the resources excessively and destroying the environment, over time, balance will be restored and we will all live happily ever after!
He succeeds in getting all the stones, ‘snaps’ his fingers, and half of every living thing in the universe turns to dust, including half of our superheroes! The film ends and we are left with a cliff hanger for the next movie.
In Avengers End Game, we fast-forward 5 years and we see that life on earth has gotten worse, not better. The surviving half of the world’s population are struggling with the loss of their loved ones, and they cannot really move on. Add to this, the effect of half the world’s talent being lost, industries and markets have struggled to adjust, and the world is falling apart. Even the wildlife and ecosystems have struggled with such a drastic impact. Without going into too much detail about time travel, Thanos sees that the world is struggling and that his prophecy hasn’t come to fruition.
I guess it’s important to note that Thanos is insane! However, his rationale as to why his plan hasn’t worked is interesting and has been analysed by film critics and scholars alike. His pearl of wisdom reasoning behind his failure, and the quote that resonated with me is:
“As long as there are those who remember what was, there will always be those that cannot accept what will be!”
This got me thinking about when we strive for ‘Better’ in business. Especially when a business goes through major changes. As I said before, striving for ‘Better’ is tough because change can be tough, especially the effect the change can have on us personally. Some embrace it and see a better future and others question and reject it.
But when striving for ‘Better’ fails and many of the ‘old guard’ reject it, does Thanos’ theory ring true? Can those who remember, and maybe embraced the old way, especially when people look through rose-coloured spectacles with almost nostalgic remembrance, embrace the change, if they cannot accept what the positives of a ‘Better’ future might be?
It’s an interesting point and one that needs to be managed by leaders very carefully to ensure success.
Solutions when striving for ‘Better’ can be quite drastic, and team members usually fall into three camps. There are those who cannot embrace the changes required, they become disruptive and can block the momentum and progress, hence, in most cases cannot be part of the solution. These people leave by their own volition or in more extreme cases are let go. The second group will take time and question the change but will understand the benefits and work through the processes to implement the change. The final group will embrace change and thrive in it.
Clear leadership and good communication are critical in gaining trust and inspiring the team to understand the benefits of the new ways. Giving a vision of what can be when the whole team works together to embrace and deliver the pursuit of ‘Better’ is key.
Don’t fall into the Thanos trap and expect everyone to change for change’s sake. Engage as many people as you can, and if there are some that really can’t see a better future, well, as tough as it is, they may need to be let go to achieve success.
As a leader, it’s a fascinating journey, and when done right, so rewarding.
Mark Bray (FIML) is a Director, Mentor and Business Coach with over 35 years’ experience working with start-ups through to ASX Enterprises across the UK, Asia and Australia. A serial entrepreneur but also a corporate leader, Mark’s vast and varied experience helps struggling businesses transform from stagnant to stellar.