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Article: When 'Change' changes

When 'Change' changesA can of worms

by Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

I was speaking to employees of a utility company in Southern California and, because they wanted the entire work force to attend, I spoke once in the morning and repeated the program in the afternoon. At the first session I had just finished talking about uncertainty and the changing nature of change when an audience member asked, "If everything is uncertain, what happens to strategic planning? How can you make any plans for an unknown future?"

It was a good question, and I answered it by using the two sessions as an example:

"I was hired to put on two identical programs today, but you and I both know that it is impossible for them to be identical even though I will use the same set of Power Point slides for both presentations. The differences will be determined by the makeup of the two audiences -- how many attend, what their energy level is, what questions they ask, maybe even what they had for lunch. And, of course, I too will be slightly different depending on my energy level and what I had for lunch, etc. I don't know how the afternoon session will be different, but I'm certain that the unexpected will happen."

What this means to me as I prepare for a program - and, more importantly, what it means to all of us as we prepare for the future - is that we have to set goals and make plans while taking into account a multitude of contingencies in a volatile environment. And then we have to understand that, despite our best efforts, the future may not play out the way we planned. We need to keep reorienting as conditions change -- frequently in ways we never anticipated. 

Some people are naturally better than others at coping with and adapting to a complex, fast-changing reality. These individuals take charge of change by remaining flexible and open to the unexpected.

A few years ago, at a management meeting in Canada for the Saskatchewan Government Insurance Company, an audience member approached me and said, "What I liked best about your speech was the part about the importance of personal flexibility to deal with change. That's because my father was the head of the Canadian prison system, and he developed a test that was the mark of the criminal mind. Would you like to hear about it?"

I said that I was very interested, so he continued, "It was really simple. My father would bring each prisoner into his office and sit across from him at a table that had two colored lights -- a red one and a green one. My father operated the lights from switches that were hidden under the table. The prisoners' task was simple -- when the red light flashed, they were to touch the red light, and when the green light went on, they were to touch the green. All the prisoners could do that just fine, but what none of them could do -- so predictably that my father referred to the trait as 'the mark of the criminal mind' -- was to see the red light flash and begin to move their hands in that direction, and then see the green light go on and alter course in time to touch the green light. "

The man waited for my reaction. "You see?" he said. "No flexibility. They couldn't commit to one action and then change course when appropriate. But of course, these were the criminals who'd been caught -- the ones who couldn't deviate from set plans even when things weren't working out."

The lesson this story highlights is that a constantly changing business environment requires organizations to create the capacity for rapid decision-making. It's also crucial that decisions are made in a way that keeps options open. A critical element in the health of any organism is robustness: the ability of a system to absorb small jolts. To create a robust organization, you must build flexibility and resilience into its foundation.

In your organization, strategies will be planned, announced, implemented, and then -- right in the middle of execution -- they will all too often have to be altered or aborted because of external changes. And you will be asked to commit to a course of action and, at the same time, stay flexible enough to alter behavior and attitude quickly to support a new direction.

Don't let the unexpected throw you. In these chaotic times, the trick is not to brace for the jolts of change, but to loosen up and learn how to roll with them. And, by the way, that's quite a trick!

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is a consultant and keynote speaker who helps people thrive on change. She addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Carol is the author of ten business books, including "This Isn't the Company I Joined." Her latest book, "The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work," will be published in the spring of 2008.  For more information, contact Carol by phone: 510-526-1727, email:, or through her website:


Reports I have written:

Other articles by Carol on this site:

Leading change, one move at a time

Virtual worlds and communication

Nonverbal communication: What your office says about you


Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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