Leading Change: It’s About Friction, Force and Risk

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I recently spent a half-day with students at the William J. Clinton School of Public Service.  They are a remarkable group of students working on a Masters degree in Public Service.  We spent our time focusing on a framework for personal leadership as well as some practical tools for their teams to use as they engage in service projects as part of a practicum course.   Most of all, we talked about leading change.

Change- any change- no matter how significant or how simple, means upsetting the current reality.  It means incurring friction and risk.  If the change is merely moving a coffee cup from one counter to the other, by definition friction is needed to grasp the cup force is needed to move it.  And the risk that the cup will end up on the floor in shards, no matter how small, is significantly increased from when it was at rest on the counter.

Big organizational and cultural change is not as different as we might think.  Asking people to move to a new reality means leaving behind the familiar.  It means getting them to let go of what is comfortable.  That requires friction and force.  Ideally it is self generated friction and force.  The ideal motivator is a vision compelling enough to create willingness to be uncomfortable.  But the outcome is still the same, friction and force.

In one debate, one of the students was concerned about the unfairness of stress put on people who may not feel that they are in a position to pursue a change.  She argued that not everyone can tolerate the amount of stress or has the resource to pursue big dreams… and that is where the risk part comes in.  No one changes the world by playing it safe.  And no one is promised parity either.

Every change carries with it risk.  In order to seriously pursue any new reality, we must be willing to sacrifice the current one.  Or, as André Gide put is so eloquently “One does not discover new lands unless one is willing to lose sight of the shore.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. Barry: I enjoyed reading this post. Much has been written about the qualities and challenges of leaders, but relatively little about those who are led.

    A book I recently read, Leading Minds, by Howard Gardner discusses your ideas, without specifically mentioning the friction and risk parts. “The ultimate impact of the leader depends most significantly on the particular story that he or she relates or embodies, and the receptions to that story on the part of audiences (or collaborators or followers).”

    He continued, ” . . . the story needs to make sense to audience members at this particular historical moment, in terms of where they have been and where they would like to go.”

    Clearly, the question that followers ask is “can I accept the status quo? Sometimes that means accepting new risks to avoid others that are more certain.

  2. Thanks for ringing in Andrew. Yes- there is a lot of focus in the literature on external models for leading change and not as much on the internal process of those impacted. Usually it is presented as an obstacle for the leaders to over come. Gardner and others who are more internally focused give the matter much more ink. If you enjoyed Gardner you might want to check out Immunity to Change, the latest from Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow, whose work on stages of adult development is pretty much required reading for coaches and OD people.

    As to accepting status quo- in organizational situations those who are led often have little choice. Where leaders of big change usually fall down on the job is to wait too long to communicate and take to tactical approach when they do. I encourage change leaders to begin the process of communication during vision development and planning. The sooner you can evoke whatever resistance will come to a change, teh more time you have to strategize, normalize and harmonize. Think back ot he the first CRM initiatives. Sales people recoiled in horror and despite all the PR and training at roll out, most of the first big projects created PC doorstops. How different that could have been with wider involvement earlier in the process.

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