Chapter 6: Change Velocity, Why embrace it?

OK changers, so here’s the next snippet on Change Velocity.

The aim here is to unpick why this is happening and what the benefits are for progressive social businesses.

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Why must 21st organisations be able to change so quickly?

In simple terms the argument is easy: because the world is changing so much more quickly. And specifically not the world elsewhere, over there in a distant corner of the globe, somehow removed and less relevant. Today, in the global marketplace, connected as we are by technology and systems those far-off changes in ‘the world’ elsewhere mean that the external environment directly around our organisations which is shifting rapidly, unexpectedly and disruptively. Most importantly, we have to get better at changing to handle the big shift from a world where we seek continuous growth to a world where we seek Betterness, as Umair Haque would put it.

As a result of this compelling blend of drivers and trends we have to be conscious of and work at ever-increasing our change velocity.

Global shifts and Black Swans

It has become a cliché, but in a world of continuous disruption change is the only constant.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the recent volatility and disruption in the global political and economic landscape:

•    Lehman Brothers and the corresponding global financial system meltdown
•    Double-dip recession 2007 – present day
•    The Arab Spring
•    Rise of BRIC (Brasil, Russia, India, China) as new economic powerhouses – in particular the rise of China
•    American stagnation
•    Euro crisis, with Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain in various states of deep financial malaise
•    Occupy movement
•    Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, Japan
•    Wikileaks and Guardian campaigns against News Corporation
•    Bin Laden and Ghaddafi’s deaths

In his brilliant book Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb described how organisations are geared up for expected risks – things that have happened before. These are ‘white swans’ – normal crises. But Taleb illustrates how the most cataclysmic, impactful, disorienting crises are entirely without precedent – we cannot prepare for them using scenarios, or simply adjust and prepare for what has happened before. These are Black Swans. Unimaginable until they have been discovered, preposterous until they happen. Some of the above were Black Swans, while others were known possible outcomes. Combined, they represent a great deal of change.

In addition to these geopolitical and Black Swan events, society too has evolved (or changed, at least!).

Activism and campaigning in networks

In society a new generation of activism has emerged. At the time of writing in my home town of Brighton on the sunny south coast of England, a campaign has spread through the social networks connecting up people living in the city who are outraged at the alleged bullying of a breast-feeding mother in a local restaurant, with a number of fellow customers telling her ‘she should be more discrete’. I first heard of it in Twitter, and quickly saw friends and friends of friends sharing the news, commenting on the original blog post (which now has 100 odd comments) and then details of a planned ‘flashmob’ protest in Facebook. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has often talked of the platform as being a ‘social utility’ which ‘removes friction from sharing’. The campaign ended up in the national and local press, on regional TV and was a brilliant success for a small group of busy (and probably tired!) mothers. Could a grassroots local campaign have spread as quickly with as little effort fifty years ago?

Clearly, this trend is not just about local campaigns. A new kind of campaigning organisation is possible in the 21st century – take The Tea Party in the USA, or the Save The Forests campaign in the UK. These digitally networked, purpose-driven campaigns can quickly form and perform, seeming to emerge out of nowhere before applying very real influence on the issues of their choice.

And the result is that – as an organisation on the wrong side of a campaign, rightly or wrongly – you can go from pootling along in business-as-usual mode, to facing a full-scale crisis, with your brand name trending on Twitter, connected activists overwhelming your website, and journalists combing through digital information in less than the time that it used to take to craft a press release.

Technology disruptions

The influence of technology is woven through this whole book. We look at specifics both further on in this chapter and in the specific Technology chapter. Suffice to say that the role of technology in driving the pace of change has been paramount – indeed, of more influence than any other individual cause.

Nobody changed the rules (yet)

It is also worth noting that one of the tensions that the 21st century organisation must deal with is that presented by the fact that the rules of the game, and in particular the law, lag behind the present-day realities of our businesses.

The law must necessarily follow society – it cannot be designed in advance and put on the shelf, ready for when that unforeseen development in the world suddenly happened. So it is that the law follows events in the real world, and always has been.

However some would say that we are in a period where there has been a wholesale paradigm shift driven by technology and media which the law is particularly lagging today. For businesses, that means the rules have not changed. Regulators and law courts still demand 20th century behaviour, which can provide a strong counter-pull to that of needing to evolve (we have also found in our work that it can provide a gold-plated excuse not to change too – a crutch and a shield to hide behind).

In particular, the law around intellectual property feels distinctly 20th century. It will be fascinating to see how the law changes to fit an age of changed notions and expectations around sharing, ownership, creation and collaboration, which will affect all businesses.

The biggest reason we need to get better at changing quickly

However, there is a more fundamental reason that our businesses need to get better at responding to change than all of these put together.

That is the perilous state of the environment.

If our businesses do not lead huge transformation in how modern life in the 21st century happens, we are all screwed. We have run out of time. The ice is melting, the seas are emptying of fish stocks, the weather systems are changing, the water is running out, many species are threatened or worse. We close our eyes and hum while the planet slips into an accelerating period of poor health. And right now most business feels like part of the problem rather than the solution.

We have to change the vested interests, the way things have always been done, the cultures and norms in every organisation, every economy, every nation state. All of these require huge change in individuals and organisations and industries and government. The status quo is the biggest single threat to the future of humanity. Seriously.

So as the challenges presented by all of these external factors come to life, society will begin to wake up and change will become the premium factor – a much desired and celebrated quality. Investors, employees, senior managers, community stakeholders and the rest will begin to see that the propensity to change is all we have if we are to sort this mess out.

For that reason alone, understanding and increasing the change velocity of our organisations is absolutely vital.

What are the benefits of improving our change velocity?

•    Learning sooner, which leads to better decision-making including more effective use of resources
•    Staying closer to customer needs, which leads to better new product development, greater loyalty, greater market share and higher employee engagement
•    Greater resilience, which leads to a more stable organisation, the attraction and retention of the best employees and customers and higher long-term results and returns
•    Continuing relevance in a volatile world, which leads to long-term contributions and sustenance to all stakeholders from employees and communities through to stockholders and economies
•    Lower risk, by “following fast” and rapidly adapting to other organisation’s innovations (rather than always pioneering)
•    All of which lead to competitive advantage – being the best, soonest, and therefore winning.
•    Fundamentally contributing to the development of a sustainable global society

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What do you think?

Feedback in comments here on the blog, twitter @willmcinnes / #cltrshck or email to wmcinnes@gmail.com.

Adios. For now.

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