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About 2,500 years ago, the Greek teacher Heraclitus wrote “change is the only constant.” You’d think we’d know what that means by now but most organizations still deal with change as a linear, stop-start-stop-start series of events. Something changes; you adjust and move forward until something changes again. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
In fact, as Heraclitus told his students: “You can’t step twice into the same river. Step out, and then step back in, and you are stepping into a different river … for other waters are ever flowing on to you.”
Change is continuous. It takes a certain kind of organization and a certain kind of leader to succeed in an environment where volatility is continuous.
If we build on the metaphor of Heraclitus’s river, we can think about organizations like matter. They exist in three possible states as relates to their adaptability to change: solid, gas or liquid.
Today many organizations exist in a solid state. Think of a block of ice. Their leaders are frozen by entrenched processes and culture. Their structure is rigid. It is not adaptable without risk of splintering fractures.
At the other end of the spectrum, organizations in a gaseous state retain no shape or consistency. They can be will-o’-the-wisps – going whichever way the wind blows, cavalier in their adaptability. Leaders who allow their organizations to drift in this way have largely abrogated their leadership.
Now think back to Heraclitus and his river. He says the waters are always changing, but it’s still the same river. An organization in a liquid state remains the same organization. It comprises the same core that is readily adaptable to genuine opportunities and dynamically responsive to changes around it. Leaders in these organizations deal continuously with the flow of change but are able to navigate it. And sometimes the river carries them to exciting new discoveries.
A ‘Liquid Change’ leader then, is one who can recognize and seize opportunity where there is continuous, rapid, significant and often capricious change – change that can affect an organization without notice. Leaders who succeed best in this river purposefully engage with change in order to seize the opportunities that come with it to create competitive advantage. Organizations that can do this are considered to be liquid, and being liquid is essential for success in times when movement has no clear end – when the river keeps flowing. Heraclitus saw it more than two millennia ago. Stability, progress and success are possible not just in spite of liquid change but because of it. The river is still the river. It still defines what it is to be a river.
Leaders have four core actions that allow them to succeed in a “Liquid Change” environment:
Create an agile company culture
In this kind of culture, change is regarded as energizing and renewing rather than threatening and exhausting. Leaders have to acknowledge that everyone goes through the valley of despair during times of change – and they emerge from it into the sunlight. Let employees catch their breath and enjoy that sunshine. Focus on opportunities. Seize the unexpected moment and the small victories along the way rather than waiting for the destination.
Be dialled in
Listen fearlessly to what others are thinking and feeling, which means asking for feedback, including scary questions, and listening to the answers without getting defensive. Know that the best ideas can come from those closest to the problems, solutions and customers. Social media is an acceptable tool to encourage dialogue but should not be relied on exclusively.
This means telling real stories that real human beings can relate to, especially if they show your own humanity. In a “Liquid Change” environment, leaders need to connect the change with people’s real lives and experiences. That creates credibility and a greater sense of purpose. Emphasize the effect people will have. They need to see the difference they can make. But be honest, don’t hide the tough news, or hide from it.
Be a pioneer
Lead the wagon train, painting a vivid, compelling picture of the better future, where your people are five steps ahead of where they are today; touch their hearts and minds. Don’t be afraid to take managed risks, learn quickly, and acknowledge you may not get it right all the time, especially the first time.
Change creates stress. Change and stress are unavoidable elements of the human condition. You either decide to float along the surface or let yourself be pulled under. By adopting the Heraclitus view – the “Liquid Change” view – we can reframe those elements as not just the inevitable but as the desirable. Change becomes the water in the river that nourishes us and propels us at the same time as it is defining what the river is.