Friday, April 30, 2010

An Exercise in Change

Last week I participated in an Executive Summit at the H.Wayne Huizenga School of Business & Entrepreneurship at NOVA Southeastern University.  Besides a day of discussion and round-tables, we were addressed by Bo Bullington, Editor-At-Large for Inc Magazine and author of "Small Giants: Companies that Choose to be Great Instead of Big".  Bo discussed the traits of some of the companies in his book and lessons we can learn.

We also heard from Dr. Barry Barnes, Professor of Leadership at NOVA and Grateful Dead Scholar on "The Process of Creating the Future".  In his presentation, Dr. Barnes included an exercise on change and why it's so hard.  I found it to be a terrific demonstration on why we all find this so challenging.  Here's how it went:

We were paired off and instructed to stand up and look at our partner and study them.  Then we were each instructed to turn around so we could not see our partner.   Then we were told to change 5 things on ourselves and see if our partner could determine what changed.

Changing 5 things wasn't as easy as I thought.  I took off my glasses, rolled up my sleeves, took off my watch, took off one shoe, and removed my belt.   My partner put on glasses, put a pen behind her ear, removed a necklace, took off a shoe and untucked her blouse.

We both were able to determine what each had changed.

Then as we proceeded to put things back the way they were, Dr. Barnes told us not to do so and instead turn around again and change 10 more things.  That became very difficult.  Both my partner and I fell well short of 10 items and without resorting to totally disrobing were only able to find a few more things to change.  Around the room, the other participants were finding it just as challenging.

Some of the lessons learned from this exercise are common sense, but there were other lessons we had not contemplated:

  1. The simple changes are easy
  2. The more things you need to change the more difficult it is
  3. There are some things you're not willing to give up for the sake of change
  4. Sometimes you have lack of resources or items to change (e.g after we changed the initial 5 items in the exercise)
  5. It doesn't have to be a solo performance (none of us used the participant in the next twosome to help us with our change effort)
  6. Human nature is the quick desire to return to the way it was (after the initial exercise of changing 5 items, we were all in the process of returning to how we were when Dr. Barnes told us to change 10 more things)
As we went through what would seem like a simple exercise, we all suffered various amounts of stress, uncomfortability, and even panic as we had to figure out what we could change based on how we were dressed and situated.

Dr. Barnes also pointed out how even with a simple instruction (to change 5 and then 10 things), leadership's direction to change typically isn't that clear.   Lack of clarity can also be an inhibitor to a successful change strategy.

Additionally, it occurred to me that all we did was change items on our outside that were visible but nothing changed at our core.  How many times have companies made superficial changes (for the sake of an exercise) that would give the appearance of difference, but in reality, nothing fundamental changed?

So as technology & the new norm developing from our current economy force change, this simple exercise gave us valuable perspective that continued as part of the discussion through the remainder of the Summit.


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