The Nature and Challenges of Change

There must be enough quotes about "change", many of them great one-liners, written over time to fill several books. Here are just a few of my personal favourites:

  • "It often takes more courage to change one's opinion than to stick to it."
  • "If you don't change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that good news?"
  • "If you don't like something change it. If you can't change it, change your attitude. Don't complain."-- Maya Angelou
  • "Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."-- Saint Francis of Assisi
  • "Vision without action is merely a dream. Action without vision just passes the time. Vision with action can change the world." -- Joel Barker
  • "I am personally convinced that one person can be a change catalyst, a 'transformer' in any situation, any organization. Such an individual is yeast that can leaven an entire loaf. It requires vision, initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith to be a transforming leader." -- Stephen R. Covey
  • "Obstacles cannot crush me. Every obstacle yields to stern resolve. He who is fixed to a star does not change his mind." -- Leonardo da Vinci
  • "If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts." -- Albert Einstein
  • "No one can persuade another to change. Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal." -- Marilyn Ferguson
  • "Our dilemma is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we really want is for things to remain the same but get better." -- Sydney J. Harris
  • "If you want truly to understand something, try to change it." -- Kurt Lewin
  • "A true visionary doesn't change with the times. A true visionary is already way ahead of the times."
  • "Forget about the consequences of failure. Failure is only a temporary change in direction to set you straight for your next success." -- Denis Waitley
  • "It's pretty incredible to look back 30 years to when Microsoft was starting and realize how work has been transformed. We're finally getting close to what I call the digital work style" -- Bill Gates
  • "A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation" -- Andrew Grove
  • "You can't change what you don't acknowledge" -- Dr Phil
  • "The world is changing very fast; big will not beat small anymore. It will be the fast beating the slow" -- Rupert Murdoch
  • "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to him. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man" --George Bernard Shaw
  • "Some people change when they see the light, others when they feel the heat" -- Caroline Schoeder
  • "Nothing is easy to the unwilling" -- Thomas Fuller
  • "It is never too late to become what you might have been" -- George Eliot
  • "Only in growth, reform, and change, paradoxically enough, is true security to be found" -- Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  • "Your current safe boundaries were once unknown frontiers" -- Unknown
  • "Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage" -- Niccolo Machiavelli
  • "The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it" -- Niccolo Machiavelli
  • "Throughout the centuries there were men who took first steps, down new roads, armed with nothing but their own vision" - Ayn Rand
  • "We must overcome the notion that we must be regular... it robs you of the chance to be extraordinary and leads you to the mediocre" -- Uta Hagen

It has often been said, "There is nothing as constant as change". This sounds like change just "happens". Is change inevitable as if ordained by the design of some unknown higher power or is it designed closer to terra firma? As an individual, are you totally "change oriented" (let's call that 100%) or are you totally "status quo oriented" (let's call that 0%)? This is not a question that we are likely to ask ourselves but we will most certainly be judged that way by others, even though we may not realize it. The truth is that we are both and neither. Circumstances and subject matter dictate where we are at any given point in time in what is really a continuum between the two extremes. Having said that, if we could measure some sort of "average" and "distribution" over an extended period of time, what do you think your stats would look like? What do you think the stats of well known "agents for change" over their adult life would look like? It would be interesting to see how the stats might change over different periods of adult life, ie. as our knowledge, attitude and "wisdom" change? If we could somehow also derive some sort of population stats, it would be interesting to see what they would look like.

When it comes to most things in "nature" the normal distribution seems to crop up more times than not. But does it apply in this case? I don't have any real proof, but my suspicion is that it may well be skewed towards the lower end, ie. there are relatively fewer people who actively cultivate and create change than there are who prefer to stick with the safer position of "status quo". To quote Andy Warhol, "They always say that time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself". This, of course, is absolutely true. Time itself changes nothing other than making us all older and some of us hopefully a little wiser. One of Niccolo Machiavelli's more famous quotes is, "It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new order. For the initiator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one". How true! I am right behind you; all the way! Then how come I have difficulty in seeing you when I turn around? Have you ever had that experience?

In other words, people are both the catalyst for change and the obstacle to change. As previously mentioned that exists in all of us to differing degrees at different times. However, it is equally true that some people are more natural "agents for change" and others, the majority, simply are not. Are they always the most intelligent people? Not necessarily. Are they always the most original thinkers? It is a definite advantage to be an original thinker but do they know what to do with those thoughts. Are they always those with more years of experience? Experience is definitely important but it isn't everything. Are they always the most ambitious? Ambition is often associated with energy and determination, which certainly helps, but that doesn't quite cover it either. So what constitutes an "agent for change"? This is a truly difficult question to answer in simple terms. One thing that we do know for sure is that we need them and always have throughout time. Even notorious ruthless people from the past, such as conquerors and dictators, were in a way "agents for change" but in a different era and with perhaps more selfish motives. Today we prefer not to spill too much blood in the process. In truth things haven't really improved that much. We still have dictators and probably always will. So we know that "agents for change" aren't necessarily "nice people"! That's not to say that they can't be perfectly nice or reasonable people either.

I think that it is fair to say that the best "agents for change" are fairly rare. Like the management conundrum, are they born that way or can they be made? I happen to believe that it is some of both. Let's examine some of the words from the quotes above and see if we can begin to put together a profile of an "agent for change". Stephen Covey used words like, ", initiative, patience, respect, persistence, courage, and faith...". I think that these go a long way to describing the right characteristics but are they complete? A word that appears several times in the quotes is "vision". What do you understand by "vision"? One definition is, "imagination: the formation of a mental image of something that is not perceived as real and is not present to the senses". How good are you at forming mental pictures as part of problem solving or turning something in your "minds eye" into a real idea? Some people are incredibly good at this and, of course, to them it all seems quite natural.

There are a few characteristics that I would add myself having been faced a number of times with the challenges of bringing about change. I would add,"...manager, planner, salesperson, doer, coach, teacher, preacher, business person, strategist, politician, risk taker, leader, take apparently unrelated ideas and put them together (make 2 + 2 = 5), see the value in other people's ideas and take them to the next level, not take "no" for an answer, and have an "itch" that you can't scratch that constantly drives you forward and sometimes that you wish would leave you alone..". Do you find yourself at night, or in certain other places (!), regularly thinking about how to do things differently and perhaps radically differently? In my own case over the past nearly 40 years this very often revolved around the use of computers. Today we take computers for granted and if we were to suggest doing something without considering using a computer we would probably be immediately have our temperature taken! It wasn't always that way.

Go back nearly 40 years and if you suggested using a computer for the first time to solve a problem outside of a University/research environment you were treated like a "heretic" and sent to get your bumps felt! This is where "risk taking", "courage" and not taking "no" for an answer come in. So what did I do the first time I faced this situation? I stuck my neck out and did it anyway (sometimes it is easier to get forgiven than to get permission!). Considering that I was fresh out of University, would I do it again? You bet, in an instant! You are either made that way or you are not! If you are determined enough you can do it and I pulled it off (the wick on the midnight oil lamp was getting quite low mind you)! That one act changed the attitudes of many. I was suddenly in demand by Project Managers who wanted to do it on their projects. People had suddenly realized that with a computer, once a suitable mathematical model had been built, the design could easily be repeated many times with different parameters - my goodness, we could now think about trying to optimize the design!!! BTW in those days I was using Fortran 66 and was lucky if I got ONE (yes one) run per day on an IBM 360, which had a "commercial" label - "techies" not that welcome! If I got two runs I went out and "celebrated" after work! Often the only way to even get one run was to submit the job at the highest priority (a.k.a. highest internal charge), which blew the dept. budget in no time. So how did I get away with it? My boss (one of the best I ever had and my "White Knight" at the time) believed in me and kept the wolves at bay. In other words he bought me the time to prove my point, which just goes to show that you need several like minds and different "players" to really bring about change.

Since those early days in my career I have had a number of firsts when it comes to using computers, and often met the same resistance. In almost every case I was also fortunate to have my "White Knight" to help grease the wheels. In time you gain the skills, experience and authority to get your own spurs and become your own "White Knight" having been a Paige to others in the past. In other words you have now become a fledgling "agent for change". You have to continuously polish your skills, expand your knowledge, and experiment to work towards being an effective "agent for change". When I first came to Canada in 1981 my task was to completely convert an entirely manual design process to a computer assisted one. This turned out to be both a fascinating and very challenging project because initially there was little money, electronic communications weren't what they are today, and it involved people and an industry that had been doing things a certain way for a very long time. Machiavelli was right on the mark when it came to the people component.

My role was both technical (engineering and computer) and Project Management oriented. Like all good PM's I did a budget, schedule, risk analysis, etc. I knew the size and difficulty of the task but the Senior Management clearly did not. So what to do? Have you ever faced the dilemma of trying to gauge "how long" and "how many dollars" to try and get something off the ground, knowing full well that it isn't going to get the job done, ie. how do you get the Senior Management "pregnant" and not get fired when they realize that they have been had? By splitting things down into sub-projects you might get away with it but that is often just too transparent. The truth is it takes "guts", commitment and an ability to eventually convince Senior Management (selling the "vision") that the extra time and seemingly endless financial commitment is worth it to deliver the "baby" rather carry out an early "abortion". Being a good "tap dancer" is also a definite asset!

I figured that 3 years was a "yes-able" proposition and so it proved to be. I forget the actual budget numbers (which is probably just as well 🙂 ). Would anyone like to guess how long it actually took for a complete transformation such that when people came to work that the first thing that they did was turn on their computer and start work? 4 years? 5 years? No, it took 7 years!! Long before the project was complete the software and hardware tools had improved greatly. So why did it take so long? Well, inanimate objects with some work can be made to suit the task (eg. big software packages often come, "some assembly required batteries not included") but the animate objects are rarely so malleable. Did we forget to do a thorough analysis of the existing procedures and work practices? No. Did we forget to put together how procedures and practices would have to change to suit the use of the new tools? No. Did we forget to train the direct users and those others affected by the changes, eg. engineers and PM's? No. Did we fail to customize the environment to make it suit the company's needs? No. So what was missing? I was trying to act as an effective "agent for change" but somehow it wasn't working.

Although I had my "White Knight", the company culture was such that each PM, and to some extent each Senior Designer, was given total freedom to execute projects whichever way they thought fit. Aha, I had to find those PM's who were amenable to being persuaded to be "agents for change"; a partner in crime. Will all those volunteers take one step forward? Why did you all just take one step back? Good fortune is always an ingredient in success and I eventually found my "guinea pig" (oops, I mean volunteer) PM. He was new to the company, computer oriented and not tainted by history; just the ticket. It would have been a pipe dream to think that the first design project with my new partner in crime would go smoothly but it was a giant step forward compared to previous projects using the new software tools. Remember, "You can take a horse to water but you can't make it drink"!

Suffice it to say the rest is largely history!! The situation soon became akin to my earlier story when people could see what it could do for them. I suspect today, 25 years after we started, nobody even gives a second thought to the "good old days". I have friends who still work there and they tell me, as I would expect, that with hardware and software advances that they are way, way beyond my recollections. Perfected 3D colour shading with real time view manipulation and real time solid object interference checking (it was in its fledgling state when I left about 10 years ago) on affordable high end PC's (10 years ago it was very expensive Unix workstations) and virtual reality simulation (man is that really cool! I got a demo at a research facility in the UK) is now commonplace in that industry. One other notable event from that project was getting the fist major 3D software license. Early in the project we had been working on a pay as you go basis, which was OK for development but not for production work. In 1983 the 3D software package cost $200K, which was a lot of money then and would still be now. This idea of spending that kind of money for software was totally new to the company and the President was "choking" on it to say the least. To get him to sign the contract I literally sat on a chair by his office door for 3 whole days and bugged him about it (very politely of course) every time that he came out. It was coming up to Xmas and I told him that this could be my Xmas present! I think in the end he signed it to get rid of me and make the place look tidy! Months later he told me that he was glad that I had been a "proverbial pain in the posterior" because he could now see the potential for the company. "Persistence" was in Stephen Covey's list of traits!

So what is the sum total of this discussion. It has centred on "agents for change", a term that is in common use. However, in thinking about putting this blog together I was really starting from a different thought and that was that I believe much of what has been presented here could equally be applied to a "versatilist", which has been discussed at length in the CIM blog. If the industry needs more "versatilists", isn't it implicit that they must be effective "agents for change"? Perhaps they are really one and the same?

Graham Jones

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