Today, everyone seems to want to associate themselves with change. Jeffrey Immelt, General Electric’s former CEO, loved to call his firm a 124 year-old startup. Its value fell by 30% under his tenure and would later collapse. Bill Gates pointed out that the culprit wasn’t innovation or disruption, but basic mismanagement.
It seems that, these days, Immelt’s leadership is closer to the rule than the exception. Everybody wants to be an innovator. Nobody wants to be associated with the status quo. Even political conservatives describe themselves as a “movement,” a seeming contradiction in terms. Change has become gospel, an end in itself rather than a mere means to an end.
The truth is that innovation is less about new ideas than it is about identifying meaningful problems. Too much happy talk about change can actually undermine meaningful transformation. If your focus on the fabulous yonder obscures your view into the day-to-day, you’re most likely headed for trouble. We need to start taking change more seriously.
Change Is Hard. People Are Struggling
Humans struggle to adapt. Our brains are not wired for change, but build synaptic pathways based on past experiences. These can change over time, but with some difficulty. We are also greatly influenced by those around us, whose brains have been shaped by similar experiences. Finally, there are often genuine switching costs that need to be overcome.
The notion that transformation can be challenging is nothing new. What managers often fail to account for, however, is that change never happens in a vacuum. It must be seen in context of everything else that’s going on in people’s lives, including pressures related to family, economic and health concerns.
Consider that research points to a dramatic increase of anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic. Another study reported in Harvard Business Review found that 76% of employees in 2021 reported at least one mental health symptom, up from 59% in 2019 and 50% have reported leaving a job due to mental health concerns, compared to 34% two years earlier. Those are dramatic increases on already high levels.
Yet even before the pandemic there were signs of trouble. A 2014 report by PwC…