The problem is: You don’t know what the problem is

Imagine mining for resources but not being sure whether to upscale the final product to sell to luxury markets in Asia or expand your tried and tested product into new markets across the globe. Imagine too that the complexity of the challenge is amplified by speed of change in the external environment and the need for new capability to deliver a new business model, or even conceive of one. Further factors could be added such as political or regulatory change, demographic and human shifts, but suffice to say that this mining scenario is not pretend or isolated. This fundamental question – how do we build a model to sustain our organisation into the future – is being played out across all corners of the world at this very moment in time in boardroom conversations. The problem is, you don’t know what the problem is and, if there is one thing to glean from reading this article, it is that this is okay. Accepting this constant ambiguity is the first step towards building strong leadership and cultivating new thinking to be successful in change.

Leading change involves incredible resilience and agility. Acceptance of ambiguity as the norm provides a leader with the mental freedom to ask the questions that need to be asked and explore scenarios without limitation. With so many variables, particularly the intensity of information flow and the pace of change driven by digitisation, leaders must adopt an open mind and incessantly question the potential for new impacts on their strategy. To effectively conceptualise the scope of the challenge and then respond appropriately, desired outcomes need to be driven through an approach to change that is fluid and agile. Values based change is fundamentally about establishing a set of specific values that recognise the need for change leadership across an organisation as part of the culture; prizing authentic, real discussions; growing creativity and curiosity; and allowing passion to thrive. It’s also about coaching leaders to align themselves with these values and giving them freedom to communicate and engage in a way that continues to tell a story of change, which will inspire discussion and build trust. Focusing on these values creates a base for emotional connection with your key audience – your employees – to build a state of change readiness and sense of urgency around the agenda, in addition to breaking down historical mental barriers. Most individuals resist change through the lens of what has happened before, and it’s vital that these are unblocked in order to be able to deliver outcomes.

Many of us look at change within the context of what has failed and why. It’s true that change does fail but the mistake is often to focus on the symbol of that failure – the ousted CEO, the bust company, a restructure destroyed by resistance – without focusing on the real issue. The truth is that change fails because it is front-loaded to focus on a ‘big bang’ approach and a short-term outcome, without enough investment in the back-end to see change embedded and get to the desired future state. The issue here is a failure to invest in sustaining engagement with employees who will make the change happen. Resistance to change is complex and hard worn employees who have ‘seen it all before’ have often just learnt to ride things out until the current wave disappears, as it so very often does. This is a bad outcome for both parties, and no longer good enough. The financial cost of failed change is significant and it is troubling to see organisations waste money in wave after wave without adopting a more holistic, values centric approach that embeds change into the culture of an organisation. This is why investment in emotional engagement is crucial to meeting the challenge of disruption head on. It’s vital to understand the story behind your team’s individual perceptions of change and to acknowledge what has happened before in a meaningful way. This is simple step, but so often not done well, or even at all. Transparency of dialogue is needed and is often a huge barrier to overcome, largely because leaders’ shy away from these more conflicted discussions. However, without them, change will fail.

Communication and language is central to leading values based change. In part this is because the language we use to facilitate change is also evolving. In short, the discussion needs to be authentic, challenging and honest in order to recognise the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) operating environment we all live within.

It is shifting towards growing creativity and fostering collaboration at all levels. Everyone is creative in their own individual way, and this can be applied in a business context; unfortunately most of us are blocked from seeing our own skillset in this light – but this needs to change. By fostering transparency of communication and driving face-to-face dialogue, leaders build a platform of trust and create emotional connection to understand past legacies, move on and absorb new messages aimed towards the future. Although communication needs to have a purpose and clarity of messaging, the real need is just to communicate, communicate, communicate. It cannot be overstated, yet it so often is overlooked or too tightly controlled. Change requires investment in communication – it is make or break – and without it the platform of trust becomes eroded. The problem is, you don’t know what the problem is, and you also don’t have all the answers. This too is okay. Let people know this and see barriers break down.

Ambiguity is everywhere; this fact will not change. In an era of digital disruption change is not an easy journey, but it is the right one. The problem is, you don’t know what the problem is and you need to begin asking the questions, incessantly, that need to be asked right now. This is a conceptual, strategic and challenging conversation within your leadership team as we face the rapid dawning of a new era of work. Take heart though. I will leave it to one of the great leaders of our time – John F. Kennedy – who in 1963 gave us one of the most inspirational quotes a leader in 2017 can live by: “Change is the law of life.

And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” Some things have not changed.