In life generally and in business in particular, we like to think of ourselves as being receptive to change. We like to imagine we are open-minded and adaptable. Being comfortable with change is considered a great asset in any profession. When someone calls you a “change agent”, it’s a compliment, and you walk around the office taller, prouder, and more confident. In fact, 20 years ago, being open to change was considered a plus, something that set you apart. Now, it’s assumed. It’s almost become a prerequisite for getting hired for any job in the first place.
But in reality, change is difficult for everyone, even for those who say they’ve come to bring change. After all, if you are hired to bring about change, you have a mission. Your mission is to bring change, and probably a fairly particular kind of it. As a result, you want the change YOU want. In order to usher in that particular change, you have to be hostile to changes that don’t fit well with it, and so sometimes even change agents turn into the resistance.
The difficulty grows when the company is large. Bringing change to a large organization is often compared to steering a large ship, and for good reason — as the organization gets larger, any change of course becomes slower and more complicated to execute. Unfortunately, even in the largest companies, thorough structural changes are often necessary for success. In today’s business world, it is clear that companies which are able to adjust course and move with the market thrive while their competitors stumble.
But in order to make a significant structural change, you need strong, persistent leadership that can clearly define what is needed, and can communicate that message throughout the organization. It might sound obvious, but even the biggest companies are made of individual people, and individual people are almost always afraid of change in some way. So you can’t expect your company’s middle-management ranks to help you lead change if you are any less than fully committed to it. And if you don’t get your middle-management to carry the torch, you won’t get your lower-level employees to buy in on it, either. Making change happen requires the efforts of everyone, from the CEO to the lowest-ranking line worker.
What makes change at a large company especially complicated is that the change itself becomes a process, and there’s an unavoidable tension between the two concepts. Large companies have thousands of people whose work they need to organize, and that requires processes. Yet asking change to be one of those processes is like asking oil to be like water. So as if it weren’t challenge enough to expect thousands of employees to overcome their natural fears of change, you have to carefully balance two concepts that don’t fit well together.
Small companies have a reputation for being more comfortable with change, and maybe that’s true. But one advantage large companies have when they are going through change is that because their pockets are deeper, they are better-equipped to survive the inevitable missteps. Change involves learning, and learning involves mistakes. When those mistakes cause you to lose sales, or to rack up unnecessary expenses, or to waste resources in some other way, a big company can usually find a way to fill in the gap while the organization figures out how to try again. A small company, on the other hand, might only get one shot before it goes bankrupt. Small boats might turn faster, but they also get knocked over by smaller waves.
It doesn’t really matter who you are, or how big your company is. Change is equally hard on everyone, just in different ways. So the next time someone in your office praises you and calls you a “forward-thinking change agent”, be proud and stand tall. But remember that secretly, somewhere inside of you, you too are afraid of change. Be humble, and remember that deep down, you have something in common with the office reactionaries. www.fatmanurerdogan.com