The Pain of Change

I used to work in a museum of timber framed buildings: medieval architecture and technology, preserved and interpreted for the twenty first century. Timber framed building are organic, almost living entities, constantly moving as the humidity and temperature change. Their construction is based around concepts of bracing, tension, compression and opposing forces. Whilst stone buildings are bonded by gravity, timber frames are self sustaining: if you turn a church upside down, it would collapse, whilst a timber frame would hold itself together quite happily.
Timber Frame
I like some of the lessons we can learn from timber: it’s ability to flex and adapt to prevailing environmental conditions, the way one part braces another, the organically interlinked nature of the construction, which gives it durability through adaptation, not inflexibility.

Effecting change is hard for two reasons: it takes us into new territory, which is daunting, and it requires us to leave safety behind, which is painful. And it requires momentum, which is why we rarely do it well. Without the braces, the forces unleashed can tear things apart. Without an understanding of the forces involved, we can’t effectively constrain them, which is risky.

The Social Age is a time of constant change, so an organisation’s ability to drive and manage change is vital, as is our individual capacity to thrive in these fluid environments.

There’s another analogy to buildings we can relate to change: the forces working upon them are not purely external. Whilst the timber frame is built to withstand the forces exerted by nature, the real reason for their demise and subsequent transfer to a museum was their inability to deal with the internal forces of change. Social trends in living mean a need for different spaces, different standards of insulation, safety, headroom, draft exclusion, all lead to newer types of buildings and the gradual redundancy of the old.

Great bastions, built to last centuries, still standing but left redundant in function by evolved social needs and expectations. Sound familiar? Look around the high street, look at many of our largest organisations, built for the last century, at risk in this one unless they develop an agility to change.

Take retail: the very concept of a marketplace evolved from the earliest fairs and cattle markets to our modern high streets: but now it’s the Amazon marketplace we turn to. The transactions have evolved beyond the physical constraints of the high street that limited them, first to ‘out of town‘ and now to ‘online‘.

Take banking: when my parents bought their first house, you still went to see the Bank manager, in his suit, and he still kept ledgers of written accounts in the vaults. Today, we see disruptive models of banking, powered by technology, innovative ideas bought to fruition in months and launched on an unsuspecting market, still served by twentieth century infrastructure.

Change is hard: but our ability to drive it and thrive on it is vital.

From an organisational perspective, it’s about understanding the forces at play and engaging with them: the ideal we have to aim for is a co-created and co-owned model of organisational change, not a model driven down from on high.

This is where our ‘sense making‘ communities can come to the fore: engage in these spaces and we can harness the power of the community to drive and impact on change. These communities can act as the braces, the spaces where we absorb and make use of the forces that are imposed from outside, turning them to our advantage. Refining and harnessing methodologies to do this is a strong approach for organisations to take.

Our view of change is often focussed on the external forces: we can expend so much effort on resisting the storm without that we fail to recognise our creeping irrelevance within.

Many disruptive models are so effective because they address this internal lethargy: they take something that everyone thinks is untouchable and they kick it right out of the door. Like online retail, or eBay, or WhatsApp, or Vine, or any one of a thousand thriving new ideas.

The safety and security people strive to hold onto is illusory at best: recognising the state of constant change in the Social Age is important as it can help us get over inertia. If staying still isn’t an option, we may as well be open to change and embrace it.

I carry out an exercise when mentoring people, asking them to record every month whether certain key indices have improved, stayed the same or got worse. For busy people, feeling under pressure, it’s valuable to understand what forces acting on us are transient and which are environmental. If we are stressed and ineffective against prevailing environmental conditions, it’s our behaviours that are at fault. We can rail and rant against environment as much as we like, but if we don’t adapt, we will be weathered away and fail. Just recognising this fact is a good start.

Building survive if they can hold up to environmental forces playing on their surfaces and social trends eroding their purpose internally. Can your business do the same? Are you able to ride the waves of change or stand there like a rock, eroding slowly?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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