The Skills of the Change Master
by Joe Flower
International Copyright 1996 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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The fundamental skills of the rest of the decade and the
opening of the new century will be the skills of dealing with change.
They are the skills of jazz, not of chamber music, of basketball
rather than baseball, of poker rather than chess, skills of dealing with
situations that are in constant flux, situations about which you do not
know enough to make a decision - yet you must constantly make decisions,
and even failing to decide is itself a decision, irrevocable, the lost
time unrecoverable, the opportunity evaporated.
Can you do this? Do you have the skills? Are you ready?
teach these skills
They don't teach these skills in school. I haven't seen
a real curriculum for them anywhere. For some people, the skills of dealing
with change are difficult, and do not come easily. I am convinced, though,
that they can be learned by anybody.
What are these skills? If you ask people to name the skills
of change, most would mention a certain openness to new ideas and realities,
a certain flexibility, a willingness to try something different, to be
different in some way. And they would be right: openness and flexibility
are certainly prerequisites. But they are insufficient. Here we will be
looking at what I would call the "deep skills" of dealing with
change. I invite you to ask yourself, "Am I good at this? Can I think
of some recent time when I exhibited this skill? Or a time when I needed
this skill, and didn't have it? How could I get better at this? How could
my organization get better at this?"
The 18 skills of change:
- Anamnesis: The
skill of keeping touch with what is deep and constant in the midst of change.
The martial artist would call this "keeping base." We might call
it "not forgetting who you really are." This allows you to maintain
your balance and keep contact with your true goals. The question, for individuals,
families and organizations, is: What are your deepest values? How do those
deep values inform the way you react to change?
- Listening: The
skill of truly hearing the other: your spouse; the most bitter, dug-in,
resistant people in your organization; the other half of a racially divided
community; or the part of yourself that you are spending enormous energy
trying to ignore. Change often is expressed most directly in your relationships
to people around you. All by itself, listening is one of the most powerful
tools of change. We are not talking here of listening passively, with an
occasional encouraging grunt. We are talking about listening actively,
asking questions, telling the other what you think you are hearing and
asking them to correct you, with no argument and no agenda, truly no agenda
other than to deeply understand this person. Think of it as being teachable.
Think of it as interviewing. How do you know when you have listened enough?
When the other person feels that you have heard them, and can say so. This
allows you to understand the other, and often to discharge much of the
negative energy on the other side. The question here is: What can you do
that you have not done to truly understand the other?
- Joining: The
skill of temporarily experiencing the world from the other's point of view.
This is expressed in the American proverb, "Walk a mile in my shoes."
The martial artist would call it, "blending," moving with the
oncoming blow and matching its speed. The psychologist or hypnotherapist
might call it "pacing the other's reality," temporarily drawing
out and amplifying the client's view of the world. You can do this even
if your world view is completely opposite, and you can do it without ever
pretending that you have dropped or forgotten your own truths. It is temporary,
but it only has power if it is complete, if for at least that moment you
have immersed yourself in the world view of the other. This could be physical:
actually putting on the clothes of the other side, doing their job for
a day. It might be educational: reading all the literature that the other
side reads, studying their arguments and their decisions. It might be purely
mental, and it could take mere seconds: as you sit down in a meeting with
someone, imagining for a few moments that you are them, coming to meet
with you. This allows you not only to understand the change with which
you are dealing, but to find a point of leverage, which is often the point
of common ground. The question here is: What can you do that is temporary
but complete, to become the other, the person or force that represents
the change you are facing?
- Penetrating: The
skill of seeing that the presenting symptom is often not the real problem.
The presenting symptoms might be a bump on the head, an enlarged pupil,
and lethargy indicating possible concussion, the next layer is an abusive
husband and alcoholism, the layer under that is that the local factory
has closed, people are jobless and despondent. Every change arrives in
disguise. The image is one of peeling away the layers of the onion. The
martial artist would call this "irimi," or entering: rather than
dealing with the club or sword that is about to crash down on his head,
he slips past it to deal directly with the opponent's center. This allows
you greater leverage for less energy. The question here is: Is the change
facing me the real change? What is behind it? And what's behind that? What
is the best level at which I can deal with this?
- Turning to the outside:
The skill of staying out of the way of the change
until you can get at it from a better angle. The game is called "whose
monkey is this?" The martial artist would call it, "tenkan,"
or turning to the outside. Confronted with an overwhelming force, he does
not try to block it directly, and neither does he run away. Instead, he
maintains contact with the attacker, but steps to one side, maneuvering
to find a point of greater leverage. Stepping out of the direct path of
the change allows you more options. The question here is: What options
do I have besides resisting this change?
- Big vision:
The skill of seeing the forest. The martial artist who keeps his head down,
focusing on the technique he is doing at the moment, will likely get clobbered
by the next attacker. The manager who keeps her nose to the grindstone,
focusing all her energy on today's topic one - say, a re-organization -
is likely to miss the political opposition, change in rules, or new competition
with the potential to take the whole enterprise out of the game. Wider
scanning buys you time. The question here is: What am I missing? What assumptions
am I making about the basis of the political and economic support of my
organization, about the foundations of my family, or about my health, or
the soundness of my job?
- Hang time: The
willingness to stay in the moment of ambiguity. Change is scary. Most people
want to get it over with, to get to the end. We experience a tremendous
pressure, from our peers and subordinates, and from deep within ourselves,
to get to a resolution, to get things settled down. Yet timing is important
in everything from soufflés to civil rights. President Lyndon Johnson
had long held a deep desire to do something about race relations in the
United States. But he waited until external events had pushed the public
to a fever pitch, demanding action, before he introduced the landmark legislation
that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
here is not
"How soon can I
get through this?"
The question is
"When is the
Similarly, the new mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown,
is known as the type who can get anything done with amazing speed. He had
promised to convene a summit meeting on homelessness. But as the date for
the summit approached, he found that everyone - business, neighborhood
leaders, homeless activists - expected him to do something about the problem,
but it had to be their way. They had no consensus on their definition of
"the problem." So he canceled the meeting, and told the public
why. He was roundly criticized, yet the tactic will likely succeed - by
increasing the pressure on the various groups involved to come up with
creative solutions that everyone can back. Executives are particularly
handicapped in their sense of timing by a management culture that equates
speed with decisiveness, and delay with increased costs, lost opportunity,
and loss of control. As ex-Apple CEO John Sculley has put it, "When
most companies are confronted with problems, they try simply to fix them."
In that climate, a tremendous advantage accrues to the player who is most
willing to just hang out with the problem. The reality is that there is
a right time to move, and that time is rarely "as soon as possible."
Sometimes the right time to move is "as late as possible." The
question here is not "How soon can I get through this?" The question
is, "When is the best moment to act?"
- Wholeness: The
ability for an organization, an individual, or a community to move as one.
We might call this "integrity." The martial artist might talk
about "uprightness" or "balance." This is not typical.
More commonly, when we move, we move disjointedly. We make decisions without
involving the people affected by the decisions. We leave troublesome people
out of the information loop. We make a decision, then look for a magic
wand that will get people to "buy in" to it. People react to
the change out of fear, since they had no information and no voice. Wholeness
allows you to move with tremendous speed when the time comes to move. The
question here is, "What would this organization look like if it were
more whole? What can I do differently to help that happen? What are the
origins of the splits in the organization - between the suits and the hands-on
people, between different specialties and departments, different levels
of training, and so on? What can we do to heal them?"
- Knowledge: The
understanding of how change works. Dealing with change takes training.
It takes study, in subjects like chaos theory, family dynamics, communications
theory, systems theory, and psychology. And it takes experience-based training
aimed at cultivating the abilities of the true change master. You cannot
deal with change successfully without changing yourself. The abilities
of the change master are not superficial, like a better golf stroke. To
master change, we must become different at the deepest level. The question
here is, "What can I learn that would make me better at dealing with
change?" The clue is: choose what is hardest for you - that is your
- Aligning the center: The
skill of lining up who you are with what you do every day - the decisions
you make, how you spend your time, what you offer to people. We have heard
for years about "aligning incentives," a phrase that usually
means making sure the employees make money, rather than lose money, doing
what the organization wants them to do. But the alignment you need
within the organization, and between yourself and the organization, goes
deeper than money. It goes, in fact, to your deepest values, to who you
are in your essence. Find the interplay between your agenda and the organization's
needs, the intersection, the place where those goals line up. Look at what
you do did today, and what you plan to do tomorrow: how many of these tasks
proceed from your deepest values? How do they promote what you believe
in? Building the tasks of each day from your deepest values, from there
to your long-term goals, then to intermediate goals, and finally to how
you are spending your time today, allows you to bring all your energies
to the task at hand. The question here is: "How do the things I am
doing today express my deepest values? How does what I am asking my subordinates
or team members to do align with their deepest values?"
- Rhythm: The
skill of knowing when to move. We might call it, "Picking your battles."
The martial artist will think of it as, for instance, making no attempt
to throw the opponent until his energy has been destabilized. In its dark
phase, this skill is called being opportunistic. As Kenny Rogers' song
"The Gambler" says, "You got to know when to hold, `em,
know when to fold `em, know when to walk away, know when to run."
In the midst of turbulence, we have an agenda, a direction we want to go.
For the martial artist, it might be "to stay safe, upright, and free
to move." For you, it might be "to increase the teamwork of my
organization," "to get the people in my family to really talk
to each other," or "to learn how to operate from desire instead
of from fear." Offering a plan for quality improvement and lower cost
will not work if the people in your organization are not feeling the pinch
of competition, and have not yet seen how they could do it. When they have
seen other people do it, they will be eager to try it themselves. Until
then, no amount of jawboning, coercion or "incentivizing" will
be enough. This allows you greater effect for less effort The question
here is: "Is this the right moment? Have the forces I am struggling
with been destabilized? Am I meeting them head-on, or at the moment when
they can be toppled with a finger?"
- Zanshin: the
skill of sustaining relationships. To a martial artist, this is "unbroken
focus," being aware of all opponents while throwing one, staying connected
to the opponent in between moments of crisis. A brittle manager deals with
what is in front of her, the disaster of the hour, the urgency forced on
her by outside forces. The change master keeps in touch with people who
have nothing to do with the problem of the moment, just to stay connected,
to spread the net wider, to keep the sensory channels open. Jeff Katzenberg,
in his years as a studio head at Disney, is said to have often made several
hundred phone calls in a day, often only a minute or two long, just to
check in with people and see how things were going. Sustaining relationships
strengthens your network before you need it, gives you an "early warning
system," and generates ideas you could never have thought up yourself.
The question here is, "Who am I talking to these days? Who could I
- Shifting Focus: The
skill of rapidly and cleanly shifting focus, being fully present with what
is in front of you, and able to fully set aside what is not the present
task. Whatever you do, even if your job has not changed, in many ways you
are no longer in the same business you were in five years ago. You may
find yourself changing hats from manager to student to customer to team
member to organizer. Your roles and tasks may shift from one month to the
next, or even hour to hour. The flip side of zanshin is the ability
to be totally present with what you are doing, then letting go of it in
order to be completely present for the next task. This allows you to bring
all your energy to what is in front of you. The question here is: "Am
I, for this moment, completely absorbed in this task, this person, this
process, with a settled mind and focused intent?"
- Acting in uncertainty: The
skill of being able to move with insufficient data. You never have enough
information. That's part of the nature of being an executive - or a human.
Obviously, you want as much data as possible to confirm your judgment and
give you feedback. Yet often you must make a decision with imperfect information,
or you risk losing the moment. This skill allows you to move when the moment
is right, even when the information is cloudy and incomplete. The question
here is: "Which way would I move if I had to move right now? Is this
the time to move?"
- High overwhelm quotient: The
willingness to take on "too much." The quote here is from Bokonon,
a character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel Cat's Cradle: "Unusual
travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Is keeping things
in your comfort range a goal for you? Comfort is the enemy of skill, alertness,
and energy. If you want to get good at handling change, you need regular
practice. Deliberately pushing your envelope (dreaming up new projects,
saying yes to the next change suggestion that comes your way) allows you
to exercise your skills in place and time that you choose, before you need
them on a schedule chosen by the wind and the trickster devils of change.
- Internal Drive: The
skill of finding joy in the doing, not just in the result. Change is a
long, bumpy, aggravating road, with a lot of detours, changed destinations,
and stops for repairs. If you don't love the journey itself, you will not
be able to push on. You will burn out waiting for that great moment of
victory, the one that never quite comes. If you are attached to the outcome,
what will you do when you have to change your mind? Are you bent on the
destination, or the journey? Surfers don't do all that work just to get
to the shore. They're interested in the ride. Being driven internally,
by your own joy in the work, by the powerful turbines of your own deepest
values, allows you stay the course when outside incentives - money, praise,
reputation - would not be enough. The question is: "How does doing
this give me joy?"
- Capacity For Paradox:
The skill of entertaining two opposing ideas at the
same time, as the raftsman maintains his balance in the midst of the rushing
river - not because of the river or in spite of the river, but with it.
Here as elsewhere, the answer is not in the answer, but in the question.
Confronted with two opposite ideas (for instance, better outcomes and lower
budgets), tradition and training push us to resolve the paradox immediately.
We feel we can't go any further without deciding which idea will be the
guide. Circumstances often force us to hang out in the paradox, sometimes
for years, all the time wondering which side will win out. The answer is
in the question: sometimes the only lasting way to cut costs is to increase
quality. The ability to milk paradox allows us to find solutions that are
"outside the box." The question here is: "What would happen
if I did not try to resolve this, but just let it be a paradox?"
- Market sense: The
skill of finding the opportunity in the crisis. Every change creates new
markets, new needs. It shifts the status quo and creates gaps. The brittle
manager only sees the change, the crisis. The change master sees the newly-opened
market. What was a looming disaster through one lens becomes, through another
lens, an opportunity. The skill of seeing opportunity in change allows
you to gather energy, resources, and capital from change as it occurs,
rather than wasting them in resisting it. The question here is: "What
need does this change create? How would filling that need further my agenda?"
These are not easy skills to acquire, if they are not
a natural part of your toolkit already. You can't pick them up in a few
hours at a conference, or by reading a few books. There is no correspondence
course. Re-organizing yourself for change is less like a Berlitz language
class and more like a life path. Re-fitting your organization for change
is not a matter of "Get me a new corporate culture while you are up."
It calls for a long-term passionate commitment to becoming a learning organization,
and a willingness on the part of everyone in management to follow that
path even when it gets uncomfortable, difficult, and surprising. In the
end, you do not have a choice. Brittle organizations, and brittle managers,
will not survive these times.
Together, these skills form a way of seeing the world,
a way of being, that is profoundly different from the conventional skills
of a manager in a slow-moving organization in an evolving industry. But
they are the same skills that we need to be good parents, mates, citizens
- and good humans - in a fluid world of dazzling and frustrating change.
How change works |
The five fundamentals of change |
What is your goal? |
Skill-building resources |
Touching what is, touching what might be |
Heading for the open space |
Habits of mind |
Scenario spinning |
Coming out |
Breaking the trance |
Finding a new path |
Why it's important |
Four quadrants |
Psychological roots |
Change Processes |