“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” – Charles Darwin

This is particularly true, now that the business eco-system is impacted by the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ – one that is witnessing a synthesis of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It is hard to find an organization that is not working through some form of change or transformation. We see this happen to many of our clients and managing this can be hard work. It takes up a lot of organizational energy and sometimes wears them down. Often, this leads to the people involved starting to long for the return to normal. The phrase ‘Are we there yet?’ has become a common phrase in organizations that are going through change.

‘Are we there yet?’ Organisational change is a cycle rather than a destination. Click To Tweet

Reality is, regardless the amount and pace of change, going back to normal is probably no longer on the cards. And the more people yearn to ‘being there’, the harder it will be to keep them engaged. So what can leaders do help their people to stay engaged through change?

Talk Change – not Grief

For decades, leaders have been taught in business schools to look at organizational change as a step process which causes shock and then anger, followed by depression and ultimately acceptance in people. This is based on a model originally developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, intended for the counselling of personal trauma and grief, associated with death and dying.

The unintended consequence of the popularity of this way of looking at change has led to a general expectation that everyone must ‘work through the change curve’. And that ‘after some turmoil’, it will result in getting back to ‘normal’.

Organisational change is an ongoing loop of different stages. Click To Tweet

Of course there are evident benefits in being sensitive to the emotional responses of people who have to change. However, it is time for leaders to stop and primarily see and discuss change as the well-known ‘grief process’. This is because the implicit promise of the eventual return to normal can often not be met, and is therefore ineffectual.

Request Learning – not Perfection

Another – and more helpful – way to look at change, is to see it as a learning process. Significant organizational change or transformation requires letting go of what is known. It is essentially about venturing into unfamiliar territory and this plays out on an organizational level, as well as for the individuals involved. Leaders can maintain engagement by talking about it in these terms, as change and transformation require people to learn new ways of working. Hence, mistakes are inevitable for a change to really stick and necessary lessons to be learnt.

However, this does not equate to diminished expectations. Leaders should create positive pressure; challenge people to perform in new ways without anticipating that people will consistently get it right, straight from the start. In the world of change, ‘failure is an option’ – it could even be a requirement for real learning to take place.

Talk Loop – not Line

Many leaders talk about change and transformation as a linear step process, or even a project. This follows from a global business culture that is comfortable with concepts such as milestones, deadlines and deliverables. By presenting change in these terms, leaders inadvertently create the expectation that the change will conclude at some point, followed by a more or less static end state.

Organisational change goes beyond milestones, deadlines and deliverables. Click To Tweet

The reality in our current world is that change and transformation are better represented as a cycle. Change and transformation are fundamentally an ongoing loop of different stages. Each stage allows the leader to help people see and celebrate their progress to date, without them having to hold out for that magical endpoint.

“The most dangerous thing is you get to the end point where you’ve made all the changes and you say, ‘Well we’ve done it now, so that we don’t have to worry too much’ And that’s where companies fail.” –  John Borghetti, CEO Virgin Australia

Interested in more? Download our Engaging Through Change report and read about:

  • 11 organizations that have successfully driven change through their people
  • 10 ways you can mimic their success
  • 4 things you can do to get started today


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Korn Ferry is the preeminent global people and organisational advisory firm. We help leaders, organisations and societies succeed by releasing the full power and potential of people. Our nearly 7,000 colleagues deliver services through Korn Ferry and our and divisions.

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