How to Navigate Change

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Humanity has been around for roughly 200,000 years. If our history were a 2-hour movie, it would be an excruciatingly boring one for the first 1 hour, 59 minutes and 59 seconds. But for the lone moviegoer who makes it this far, the last second rewards them with a blast of change and innovation that – when seen in context of the big picture – is the singularity in action.

Change is exponential, not linear. And we’ve surpassed the tipping point.

If we think the past few years have been quite the ride, this tidal wave of change will only accelerate. The next 10 years will make the past 10 years feel charming and quaint. Evolution of AI and augmented intelligence, virtual reality, robots, driverless cars, automated and networked everything with real-time data and intelligence… we’re just scratching the surface.

How is a business to keep pace?

The pace of change is one that’s widely recognized and yet most companies don’t have a good answer for how to manage it. Fact is, the antiquated model we inherited from Henry Ford is already falling behind and cannot be sustained much longer. Why?

  • It’s optimized for efficiency rather than adaptability. And sadly, the silos inherent to this model are creating enormous inefficiencies because…
  • It’s optimized for products rather than people and ecosystems. This worked well for a linear automobile line, but it fails miserably to deliver coherent, valuable experiences that customers want to buy. And it neglects to address the ecosystem complexity (partners, stakeholders, value chain, etc.) that is emblematic of modern business.
  • It’s optimized for incremental thinking versus true innovation. “Operating like a machine” used to be a complement; in some circles, it still is. But a well-oiled machine does one thing well; if you want it to do something new, you have to rebuild it. Few, if any, machines can think laterally, or from the customers’ perspectives, to arrive at fresh new ideas that address unmet needs. At least not consistently and repeatably.
  • Lastly, this model defines “value” in a one-dimensional way: financial. In the dry mumblings of a dusty bookkeeper, value is determined by the market rather than by those who pay our paychecks: our customers.

Why most transformation efforts will fail

As we all intuitively know, we can’t solve problems with the same thinking that created the problems in the first place. The number one roadblock for forward progress that I’ve seen over my career is fragmentation and silos… and yet transformation efforts are often fragmented and run out of a single department.

·      Digital transformation run out of IT

·      Innovation transformation run out of product teams

·      Future of Work transformation run out of HR or real estate

·      Customer-centric transformation run out of CX or customer service

Many companies are trying to do all these things at once without connecting the dots. And sadly, the vast majority of consulting and analyst firms mirror their clients’ dysfunction, since that’s how the buying process works.  Everyone is far too focused on specific trees without understanding the broader landscape.

So we have culture change for innovation, culture change for digital adoption, and culture change for customer-centricity. We have Future of Work efforts that address the physical workspace without addressing the culture and processes and org structure needed to support these spaces. All sitting on top of an outdated business philosophy that puts products ahead of people.

And then we wonder why these efforts fail.

The solution: Focus on what doesn’t change

As we think over the past thousand, or tens of thousands of years, what hasn’t fundamentally changed? The answer is in the mirror: Humanity.

We’ve had the same basic needs for security, control, belonging and significance for eons. We want to learn and grow, and contribute to something bigger than ourselves.  

A lot has been written about how Millennials and Gen Z are so different from the older generations, but I disagree. We all share the same fundamental human needs… but the younger generations’ expectations are unique. We Gen-Xers and Boomers were taught to work within this rapidly antiquated system. Millennials are rightly challenging that system.

When steel was invented, bridge builders didn’t keep building steel versions of wooden bridges; they understood that the new materials enabled a new kind of bridge, one that is lighter and stronger. Digital Natives understand the same thing: that technology is enabling a completely new species of business. One this is more human, not less – understanding that bridges are there to help humans get from point A to point B, not to be an end unto itself – and embodies different principles than Henry Ford’s legacy that enable the betterment of our society.

What does this mean for you?

Every successful brand has anchored its entire business around meeting a customer-defined need. I’ve outlined the Value Platform archetypes in the next post, but a few examples:

·      Apple focuses on control (ease of use/simplicity) and aesthetics.

·      Starbucks focuses on empowerment and belonging.

·      Nordstrom focuses on esteem: helping customers feel valued.

·      Social media giants focus on connection and belonging.

·      IBM focuses on security (“no one ever got fired for buying IBM”)

Think about it: innovation starts with understanding customer needs. Digital and Future of Work is in service of customer and employee needs. Customer-centricity (obviously) is about meeting customer needs. So why are all these different departments doing their own research (or worse, not doing research at all) without clear alignment at the top on what definition of value the organization is trying to deliver?

When you anchor everything you do on meeting one (or more) unchanging need states that is common to your various stakeholders, you create a human-centric platform that breaks down silos, unifies transformation efforts, and establishes an unchanging frame of reference (ie. transportation vs. railroads) that can take you into the future regardless of how your context changes. In other words, it serves to defrag business.

Is this the whole answer? Not at all. But if your business is on a journey to be relevant in the future, alignment around an unchanging North Star destination is an essential first step.