I love paradox. Here’s an example: the best way to prepare for change is to decide what isn’t going to change.
Several weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to a gathering hosted by the Churchill Club in Silicon Valley. The theme of the gathering was “Changing the Game.” They gave me exactly three minutes to offer some thoughts on the best way to prepare for change.
Little did they know at the time, but I had deep experience with this topic from a very young age. You see, as a child, I lived a very nomadic life. My father worked with a multinational corporation. Virtually every year he was transferred to a new post in a different country.
So, each time my Dad got transferred, I faced the prospect of moving to a country that I had never been to before. I had the challenge of making a new set of friends, knowing that, upon my father’s next transfer, I would have to leave all the friends that I had made and start all over again in the new country. This would be challenging enough for anyone, but for a shy and introverted young boy, it was a nightmare. Talk about preparing for change!
So, what did I learn from this experience? Well, I learned that change can be really, really exciting – it was an awesome opportunity to explore the globe at a very young age and experience so many diverse cultures. But change is also really scary.
As much as we might benefit from change, as human beings we all crave some form of stability in our lives. We need something that we can hold onto in a world that seems to be whirling more and more out of control, an oasis in the swirling sandstorm that clouds our view of the future.
That is why one of the most pronounced demographic trends of the past forty years has been the global growth of fundamentalist religions. When everything seems to changing more quickly and uncertainty looms around every corner, it can be enormously comforting to know that there is a Truth out there that will never change. Fundamentalist religions unfortunately tend to go one step further and encourage a belief that change is suspect, that the path of virtue is to fight change and return to some idyllic past.
So, how can we best prepare for change? My advice based on the experience that I have accumulated over the years: decide what isn’t going to change, especially in three key domains: principles, purpose and people. Ask yourselves three key questions:
What principles or values will I hold constant?
As we move into a world of ever accelerating change and extreme events that will increasingly come at us from entirely unexpected directions, we will be faced with options in terms of actions that we never expected to face. Often, we will need to decide quickly which action to take – there will be limited time for reflection or analysis.
In these circumstances, we will benefit enormously by having a set of moral and ethical guard rails that will help us to narrow choices quickly. While the consequences of our actions can never be known fully at the time we make our choices, at least we will have the reassurance that we have stayed true to the values that matter most to us.
Not only will this be a comfort for us and enable us to take effective action more quickly, it will also be a comfort to those around us. Through our actions, even very radical and unexpected actions, they will see what will stay true for us even under the most trying of circumstances. In a world that increasingly depends on trust-based relationships, this can be a hugely valuable compass for others as they decide whom to rely on as pressure mounts and as new opportunities surface.
What purpose or direction will I hold constant?
Another way of framing this question is: why am I here and where do I want to contribute? In a world that presents us with unforeseen events at an ever increasing rate, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed with everything that is occurring and to spread ourselves way too thin, diminishing our impact on all fronts. We all have limited resources. The best way to achieve impact is to mobilize a critical mass of resources, time and attention against opportunities that really matter to us.
Please note: I am not saying we need to have a clear idea of our destination. I am referring here to the passion of the explorer – a clear and unwavering commitment to a domain of action that defines the arena you intend to play and grow in. That domain will undoubtedly evolve rapidly, often experiencing disruptive change, and the boundaries of the domain are likely to change over time. Nevertheless, by having some clarity around the domain, you will be much more likely to have increasing impact over time relative to those who are buffeted about by the winds of change that seem to present a shiny new object or an unexpected challenge on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Who are the people that I’m going to take on the journey and who I am going to stay with, no matter what?
Even the most shy and introverted of us are ultimately social beings. We draw strength from deep connections that help us get through those really tough times when we are being challenged in ways that we never thought possible. Regardless of how strong or talented we are, if we don’t invest the time and effort to build these relationships and stay true to these relationships, no matter what, we will find ourselves weaker than those who do. The victories will be more hollow and the defeats will be more difficult without those we can share them with.
In choosing the passengers on your journey, be sure to ask the question: are these people who amplify my energy or are they people who drain my energy? We will need all the energy we can muster to confront and master change, so we will be far better off if we can find people who provide us with even more energy than we have on our own.
Be careful about the tendency to pick only people who are just like you. It can be very tempting because often these people give us great comfort. On the other hand, we benefit greatly by having people as part of our cadre who approach things differently from the way we do and who bring a very different set of experiences and skill sets.
They’re the ones that we can count on to ask the tough questions, the questions we never even thought to ask, but that turn out to be the questions that make the difference between success and failure. They’re the ones who can take a completely unfamiliar situation and help us to make sense of it and come up with innovative new ways to make the most of that situation.
From my earliest childhood experiences, I’ve found that by focusing on these three elements of stability, I am much better prepared for change.
The change that before seemed scary and created huge stress, now becomes something that we can not only embrace, but seek out and benefit from. It becomes exciting because it provides us with an opportunity to learn faster and develop ourselves more quickly, increasing our potential impact on the world around us.
We can do all this, because we now what is not going to change and where we will find the stability that we all, as human beings, so desperately need.