Thriving During Times of Transformation

Why Risk Could Be Your Company’s Safest Option 
By Lisa Sadach

Is there someone who thinks they can do your job better? Are you making sure you are proving them wrong? Dr. Marvin Washington, an independent consultant and a professor at the University of Alberta’s Alberta School of Business, has made a career of thriving with change and helping companies do the same. Through his work on organizational change, he has helped companies adapt by ensuring that they are not in a position for a competitor to come in and take away clients.

Washington, who gave a presentation on “Thriving During Times of Transformation” at the RIMS Canada Conference in September, says one of the biggest pitfalls that companies fall into is resting when things seem to be going well, and not reacting when change is on the horizon. 

“You may think you’re fine, but if your consumers don’t think you’re fine and they start demanding more, and you’re not able to keep up, they’ll find something or someone else,” Washington says. A company can go from “doing ok” to falling behind seemingly overnight.

Washington cautions that it is unrealistic to think that change will never happen to you, or to your company, citing both the privatization of the prison system in the U.S., and the privatization of the water and sewage system in the city of Edmonton. For many decades, the management of both of these institutions was considered safe to change, yet they were disrupted. Multiple similar examples can be found (many more right here in this issue).

“And why did this happen? Because someone thought that they could do it better, and they did,” Washington says. 

The ABCD’s of Keeping up with Change

To help leaders successfully adapt to change, Washington suggests his ABCD Model. This approach demonstrates how leaders should allocate their time to help prepare them to stay flexible and adaptable.  

“A is your day to day job: meetings, emails, attending to routine issues, approvals, budgets, etc.” Washington says. “C, is crises that disrupt the day to day, such as if the computers are down or if someone calls in sick.” Washington says the “A” and “C” of the model are where leaders spend most of their time.

“D” is more for “dumb decisions” or situations that cause setbacks, such as not getting something fixed in time, not updating your software, or even making a bad hire and having to spend time replacing them.  

“B,” or “building business,” is where leaders can really make a difference in their ability to adapt to change. “Unfortunately, managers and leaders just don’t spend enough time there, because A and C are relentless,” Washington says. “We have a to-do list that grows longer and longer every day.”

Washington says the key for leaders is to make time for “B,” to actively allot time to simply just think about the business, its direction, changes happening now, potential changes, and the current status of the business.

“Schedule a time each day to just think,” Washington says. “That’s how we get to mindfulness. You need to pause the day to day grind because no one becomes a leader to just deal with that day to day stuff. People become leaders with the goal of making a difference. You can’t make that difference unless you make time for it.” 

Spending time on building your business also helps leaders stay calm in times of crisis which can lead to making better decisions—even in the worst situations. He equates this to how a firefighter deals with a fire: for the person whose house is on fire, they are experiencing a crisis and they are deeply affected and not thinking clearly. They are panicking while the firefighter is calm. That calmness comes from practice and training. Thinking about your business, and spending time on “B” to build it, prepares a leader’s mind to not see a crisis as a threatening inferno. Instead, the crisis becomes something manageable, something that requires clear thinking and a plan made possible through consistent mindfulness. 

Don’t Sweat the Fire

Another key area that Washington focuses on with his clients is helping them get to a place where they are prepared to deal with change, without needing to deal with the stress of change. 

“I help people separate what should be stressed in times of change versus what should not be stressed in times of change,” Washington says. “I tend to think of it as similar to public speaking. Every public speaker I know, right when they stand up, their palms get a little sweaty, their voice crackles a little bit, and their heart beats a little faster. Experienced public speakers think ‘that’s normal. That’s just part of the nervousness of speaking,’ and then they go through the presentation. Novice speakers go, ‘oh my God, I’m having a heart attack, I can’t do this.”

Leaders who are in the right mindset will understand that change is not a blip on the radar before things return to normal, change is often permanent and unpredictable. Good leaders will understand that this is normal and not waste time or energy fearing or resisting change. 

“You’ve got to internalize it. You have to adopt the stance that will make dealing with change more like A or B work, and not like C or D work. Because we know what happens in a crisis: people are going to run crazy. But if you think about a crisis like the A or B work, you’re prepared for it. You can actually make a decision.”

Empowering Your Team for Change

Washington says that to be a more effective change leader, a company’s staff should be empowered with the right tools to think for themselves. “I often hear from leaders, ‘I can’t do the stuff I want to do, because my staff is always asking me questions,’” Washington says. “My response is: ‘If you stopped answering those questions, they’d develop the skill to learn the answers.’” When leaders create the right culture, then their staff will do what they need to do and they can spend more time doing what they should be doing, which is thinking practically and thinking about what will happen five years from now, not worried about what will happen tomorrow.

How Policies are Killing Innovation 

Large companies tend to kill innovation because they have rules and protocols designed to automatically turn down new ideas. “We have a tendency to be risk-averse,” Washington says. “But risk and innovation are the same. If an idea doesn’t work, we call it failure. If it does work, we call it innovation. As an organization, we want to reduce risk, which means we may not be good at noticing what are the innovative good ideas versus what are the risky bad ideas. We just say no to everything.”

“This makes it hard to be innovative. The solution is to start thinking about the policies and processes. The bigger a company gets, the more of this there is. There are more manuals to read, and policies and procedures and committees. Most of that is designed to reduce risk, which means it’s redundant, which means it’s designed to reduce innovation, to reduce creativity. So, part of the change and effectively innovating and transforming is to change the bureaucracy.”

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