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Navigating the Rapids of Change

by John Scherer

Throughout history it used to be that periods of change only lasted a few years, followed by a LONG period of stability and quiet. It was like the canoe trips I remember taking as a Boy Scout back in Virginia. Going down a river, we’d rest during the calm stretches and then hang on for dear life when we hit rapids. After passing through the rapids, we’d rest on our paddles in the calm water again.

Economist Robert Theobold has coined the term, “rapids of change,” alluding to this phenomenon. Recently one thing has emerged as certain about the near-term future: there isn’t any more calm water! It’s likely to be rapids from here on out.

I believe we are now in what a consultant colleague and friend at George Washington University, Peter Vaill, calls “permanent white water.” The leadership and management approaches of the past are simply not going to cut it if he is correct. How do you manage a)yourself, b)your work group, c)your organization and/or your business, in a time of permanent white water? Where do you look for guidance and ideas which will work?

Your success as a leader could depend on the development of your capacity to discover the following new ways of learning in yourself and those around you.

A true high-performance team works together to get through the rapids. It’s not the “everyone-for-themselves” approach found in most work groups. The skills of learning, choosing, relating, changing the game and finding your center are best done together. You may be able to learn from experience, but if your team can’t, then where are you? Make a commitment soon to work on these critical abilities as a group.

The most important and basic work of all may be your ability to break the hold of old paradigms which are no longer valid; and learning to think in new ways about how to make the old values live again. This is difficultotherwise we would all be doing itbut not impossible.

If you do not learn how to do these things, again if necessary, you will not make it through the next phase of organizational life without extreme stress. It will be hard enough developing your capabilities in each of these five areas, but at least you will have a fighting chance when things get crazy. (The first three factors are from Toffler’s Future Shock, the last two are John Scherer’s. Peter Vaill is the originator of the “permanent white water” concept in his Management as a Performing Art, and the concept Rapids of Change was coined by Robert Theobold in his book by that title.)

Capability No. 1

Learning How To Learn
This may seem ridiculous on the surface, but you know how hard it is. You don’t get good grades in schoolunless you went to an unusual onefor knowing how to learn. Good grades come for having the right answers, in essence showing the teacher that you already knew something. You don’t get promoted in most organizations for having good questions but for having good answers. Yet the future is going to reward those of us who understand when and how to put aside what we “know” and begin asking the right questions to discover what we don’t know.

It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us; it’s what we don’t know we don’t know. This is especially challenging because you and your team may have to be pioneers, discoveringfor the rest of the organizationwhat needs to be known in order for your enterprise to succeed. But it’s even tougher than that. You will need to find out what it is that you don’t even know that you don’t know. That takes some openness to learning.

“It ain’t what we knows that does us in, it’s what we know that ain’t so no more...” says folk philosopher Josh Billings.

Experience is not the best teacher. If that were the case, then older people in the world would be making all the discoveries, because they have more experience. Experience reflected-on is the best teacher. What have you learned from what happened to you today, this week? Most of us just glide along, hoping that what we have already mastered will be enough, or that we will be able to cram a quick lesson when confronted by a crisis.

In the days ahead, everyone in the organization must become an expert on learning from experience. It is important that you learn a new way of looking at and listening to what happens so that you can go beyond where you are now. You must dedicate yourself to learning how to learn to make it through the rapids.

One such process, which we call the RIAG model, involves

  • Reflecting on some experience,
  • Identifying something that happened that you want to focus on,
  • Analyzing exactly what helped and hindered your purpose without blame, and then
  • Generalizing what principles you learned which could be applied to other situations.

This model could become an important part of your learning-how-to-learn capability. Try it.

Capability No. 2

Knowing How to Choose
Most of us “de-cide” things. The root of the word comes from the same one as homicide. It means, basically, to “kill off alternatives until there is only one left.” Generally, when the situation is fairly stable, where alternatives are more or less equal in value and where the “problem” is understood, de-ciding works just fine.

The weakness of de-ciding is that there is often little or no commitment invested in the outcome. People may talk about the decision as being a “compromise” or as “something we had to settle on.” Many times people go out the door actually believing the inadequacy of the idea or solution selected. Then they wait for circumstances to prove them right.

Choosing is another matter altogether. This means coming from a place of strength and actually declaring, giving your word, that something will happen, no matter what. Whatever disagreement you may have had, gets cleared up in the process of coming to the choice.

When we choose, we take responsibility for the result and not just the decision. We take responsibility for all the problems which the solution will generate. (A solution is a choice among dilemmas.) Blame becomes irrelevant because the source of the solution is “us/we,” not “them.”

You will have to choose to embrace new people, things and ideas without blame, without excuse, and let the chips fall where they may. Then, be willing to look and see what happened, and choose again and again. Like making a marriage work, this will require choosing your organization’s purpose, your own task, your boss, your work team members, and your best guesses about what to do.

Capability No. 3

Knowing How to Relate
In a “normal” organization, it is possible to get by with fairly superficial communications and relationships. You can get by this way, but it doesn’t set the world on fire or achieve any great things.

When you are in the rapids of change, creating and sustaining a high performance/high-commitment team will demand much more profound relationships than you may have had in the past. The kind of trusting, open relationship you have with your best friends is closer to what you will need to develop with coworkers to enable your organization to survive. Anything less simply will not work.

You will need relationships characterized by:

  • Candorthe truth must be spoken, both the good news and the bad.
  • Trustthis is created, not found lying around on the ground.
  • Reliabilityyou can be counted on and vice versa.
  • Acceptanceseeing people as they are and saying “okay.”

One of the most important capabilities is the need to relate when you are upset. Many relationships at work go well until there is a problem. Then they fall apart. In the midst of change, you must work it out. This means you must learn and use effective conflict-resolution techniques, so that conflictwhich is the energy source for all changecan make a positive contribution to the effort, not a dysfunctional one.

As you may know, creating and maintaining a successful working relationship requires 100% from both people. If one person sees themselves as 50%, or 60%, or even 99% responsible for getting something important accomplished, it may not happen. Both people need to act as if they were 100% responsible; thenand often only thenwill it happen.

Relating is not just for feeling goodalthough that is a lot more important than we thinkit’s for results. Purposeful, real relationships based on the truth will bring results.

Capability No. 4

Knowing How To Change The Game
When the ground is shifting under you and you need to create some kind of positive change, more-of-the-same-only-better may not be enough. This is not the first attempt to solve whatever problems face you, but the need for a new way of thinking about an old situation. Often, “The Problem” is the way you view the problem, what you think the problem is. When asked about how to resolve the problems created by the “solution” called nuclear energy, Einstein said, “Our thinking has created problems which cannot be solved by our same level of thinking.”

At times like this it is sometimes necessary to change the game. Just getting better at the old game may contribute to your status or your short-term reputation, but it may not get the job done. Being more successful at doing the wrong thing can lead to disaster in the rapids of change. For instance, where two departments have been at each other’s throats, someone needs to change the game from “How can we beat those other guys?” to something like “How can we all/both give and get what we need to succeed?” In the first game, nobody really wins. In the second, there is at least the chance for both to win.

Another game which may need to be changed is the manager-team game. In the past, there may have been a game called “How can I look better than those other people?” Where teamwork determines success or failure, the game may need to become “How can we succeed so that we all look good?” When the game changes, there is bound to be some turbulence generated by uncertainty concerning things like performance ratings under the new “rules.”

Changing the game requires what we call “Breakthrough Thinking,” which is the ability to create a solution which may not have been possible under the old rules of thinking. It works best in situations which have not yielded to “normal” methods or problem-solving.

To navigate through permanent white water, you must a) learn by heart the purpose of the organization, b) find out which absolute givens cannot be fooled with, and c) start looking for new ways of thinking about what must be done in order to make your organization’s purpose a regular occurrence.

Capability No. 5

Finding Your Center
Have you ever known someone who seems to glide effortlessly through the rapids of life, not avoiding the tough times, but not getting clobbered by them either? They may be on to a great secret.

Most of life is lived on the surface, out near the periphery. That’s where most of our “problems” show up, as well as most “solutions.” But all of those are usually just symptoms. It takes a lot of energy to be there, shows that we are working hard, but much of it makes no real difference. The closer to the center we operate, the more powerful we are and the more effortless our life becomes.

More important than what you know how to do is what you believe, down deep, about the mission, your colleagues, yourself. Near the center of who you are lie all those core values which give what you do its meaning. This is the “place” you must learn to access in turbulent times. This is “the still point in a turning world.” From this place, choices become easier, dilemmas clear up faster and problems become opportunities.

What is at the very bottom of your company’s purpose? Even more central than “selling advertising inches” or “making widgets” or “making money” or “returning shareholders a fair return on their investment?” What important contribution to the world would be lost if you suddenly went out of business? Here’s a great question: What would your organization set out to do if it knew that it couldn’t fail? What would you do?

These are the kinds of questions you need to work with, or better, work from, since changing the game often looks more like working inside a huge question than replicating an answer. At the personal level, you will need to learn how to quiet your mind. Stress is actually created by our minds. “Out there” are only circumstances. What we do about them depends on our interpretation. When things get “tough,” we need to know how to relax and stay in our center.

At the team level, you and your colleagues must develop the capability of returning to the core values, the center, when things knock you around. In times of conflict, rather than getting caught up in whose fault it is, go back home, go back to what is really important, what you are here to be and do for people. Breakthroughs lie there, waiting to be picked up and acted upon. Does your top management know where the Center is for your organization? Are they leading you all back to the Center, the core purpose and values of the business? From now on out, you are either serving the customer or somebody who does.

That’s a core value for making it through these rapids of change before us. Come back to that central theme when in doubt. As you work together, you will discover other, possibly new, core values, which will need to be communicated to the rest of the leadership team.

People caught up in the day-to-day grind of “getting the work out” seldom have the luxury of looking for what might be missing. “When you’re busy avoiding alligators, it’s hard to remember that you went in to drain the swamp...” You may have to be an R&D vanguard, not only about new ways of doing things, but also about where your organization’s center really is and how to work from that powerful and successful place.

John Scherer is the creator of the Executive Development Intensive, a four day solo program for senior managers and spouses devoted to expanding the mind, stretching the body, and deepening the spirit. This inspired John to write Work and the Human Spirit, detailing what happens to executives and their spouses on their way to the top and what happens when they are given the opportunity to have a new experience within themselves. He is also coauthor of the forthcoming Three Questions That Will Change Your Life. Email: info@jsassociates Fax: 509-623-2511

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