# 25: Change Is Driven by INDIVIDUALS

Story behind the Passage

This might sound quite funny but these days, I really have the feeling that the digital transformation is actually happening in Germany. Of course, revelations like these always occur due to the specific situation one is in, e.g., the work environment, the people, the projects, personal media use, etc. All this in combination leads to this moment of epiphany in which, all of a sudden, something that has been understood before in more or less abstract terms becomes so clear and powerful that there is no return to the old notion of “reality.”

I had one of these moments today when I talked to someone who is responsible for running a business that has been hit extremely hard by the Covid crisis. I am really a positive and solution-oriented thinker who usually has some idea as to how to turn a bad situation into a chance. But in this case, I really felt I had no ideas to contribute, except for communicating my honest belief that especially extreme crises foster extremely meaningful and valuable solutions.

What we mostly talked about in this conversation was the current digital transformation towards “New Work” in corporations. What led to my heureka moment today was not the topic itself. It was the mere fact that I was basically having a fairly trustful and precious conversation with an executive whom I had not known the minute before. I had contacted her via a network that I had just recently joined. And this network is run by people who are real experts in curating innovation communities.

As both of us figured out quite quickly, we are members of this “in-between” generation. We are young enough to have adopted the “new” values and work ethos of the Generations Y and Z, including open-mindedness, communication on eye-level, appreciation of IT and new media technologies, remote management, the search for meaningful work, and many other things. Well, I am not even sure if “work ethos” does connect us with the youngest generation of professionals. Because what I definitely feel too old for is the belief that all education and professional training can be completed on YouTube, to put I bluntly. And yes, this sounds quite mean but I do mean it.

Being hip and cool and always in chill-out mode might be a sign of the New Work culture. Still, I miss the “work” part in that entire construct sometimes. I already talked about this issue of feedback in one of my former posts (Did I? I am getting really old, it seems, cannot even remember…). What I mean is that getting feedback from many different perspectives is quite a useful thing to do. The problem is: You need to get feedback on something. And if you are not able to come up with this something in the first place, the value contribution will be very limited. And this ‘something’ I am talking about is what I call work.

Even though work today consists of communication to a high degree, we should not overestimate the latter. Above all, business has always been based on communication, long before there was Facebook and twitter. The point is: Business without a product of some form might work for startups for a while (because they rely on prototypes) but there comes a point where mere communication does not suffice anymore. How is all this related to the conversation I had and the topic of change leadership?

Well, my counterpart assured me that the cultural change towards New Work still needs attention as something that has by far not been completed, also in large organizations. Yes, Covid has put supposedly “more important” issues on the list of priorities. But people who have been dealing with cultural change in organizations beyond a superficial level are very well aware of the fact how much these core issues are connected with cultural change. In other words: If the mindsets of decision makers in organizations are stuck somewhere in the past, these people will not be able to manage the current crisis well, no matter how much Covid itself affects the situation.

This made me think of Kotter’s work on change again. Since I worked on his business fable Our Iceberg Is Melting in my second book project, I am quite a Kotter fan. But my fandom is not only rooted in his actual work. It is also connected to his role as a practice-oriented teacher and researcher who introduced creative teaching formats in university. I have chosen the passage above because it reflects what I also mentioned in the conversation today. In order to navigate through complex times like these, you need to be able to really get the big picture of where the world is moving right now and how rapidly this happens. This does not mean that we know the exact destination of all these developments. At least, however, we have to watch it carefully in order to make informed decisions. And this, no matter how artificially intelligent our IT is, still needs to be done by human beings.

My Learnings

“… a picture of the future that is relatively easy to communicate…” Given what I am saying above, this sentence makes hardly any sense, right? If nobody knows where we are heading, how could top-level executives or anybody else paint such a clear and easy picture of the future? I think, even though Kotter developed his groundbreaking thoughts on change leadership more than two decades ago, this core element of successful change is as relevant as it was back then. Yes, we do not know exactly what the digital transformation is going to offer in five or ten years from now. The point is: It does not matter! The future is always a big question mark and I think we are making it a bit easy if we always state that the digital revolution is such a huge change that really nobody can make any decisions because of the uncertainty.

Hello!? What do you think people thought when the first PC was invented in the early 1980s or even the first steam engine in the 17th century? It is the nature of innovation that it brings progress, uncertainty, and therefore also fear. This exactly is the reason why this aspect of “easy” communication of a vision is so important. People only trust stuff that is fairly tangible, at least in the mind. And if the present is complex enough, at least the vision of the future should be something that is easy to swallow and ideally has a positive connotation because it somehow promises to alleviate the current status of complexity and even chaos.

According to my impression so far, we are not doing a good job with this in Germany. The bigger picture of New Work and Industry 4.0 is not clear to the majority of the people yet. Yes, in hipster hubs and startup incubators in Berlin and other metropolises, members of the “community” already live in this digital alternative universe. It just takes one click and you find yourself in a world in which you can get in touch with anybody at anytime. Still, we should be aware — especially those inside the bubble — that this is the minority. And we, those insiders, will probably have to live with this awareness that the large majority of early and late adopters, as well as laggards, will follow at a much later stage.

The question is: Are we doing a good job with respect to our communication from inside the bubble? If we take the collective of cultural innovators as the leading change agents in society; is it not our task to communicate the “vision”? And if we are doing this already (which I doubt), are we doing this in a language that is “easy” to understand for those outside the bubble? And by ‘outside,’ I do not even mean people whose jobs are 100% analog or who live in the countryside without any corporate job at all. You do not even have to go that far. I think, there are plenty of people within our organizations that are somehow left behind, simply because their jobs do not require them to change that quickly. Maybe they want to know what the future will look like from our perspective but we do not give them a chance to understand because we do not find the proper language to draw easy images in their minds?

“Sometimes the first draft comes mostly from a single individual.” In the passages above, I drifted into this “we” mode of writing. It is quite common nowadays because it supposedly puts the collective genius at the forefront — the ‘community’ — as New Work experienced minds might say. The point is, yes, I totally believe in the power of innovation communities. My own example of talking to a complete stranger today based on shared trust in a curated network gives testimony to this. Still, and I know this might be a legacy of my acculturation in the U.S., my ultimate trust is in the power of the individual. Yes, this is a very “Western” notion but it is the one thing that I stand for and work for. It just took me half a lifetime to realize that individual and collective power are complementary, not opposites — not black and white.

So, what I am saying is that this “single individual” that Kotter is talking about (in Kotter’s and Rathgeber’s Penguin fable, this individual is Fred :o)) is crucial to trigger change. And we need to make sure that in the middle of all the community talk, we support and promote individual talent. For me, since I am such an individualist and, as a writer, also quite introverted, this collective communication chaos is quite confusing, even sad to witness sometimes. Do people actually take the time to prepare for individual conversations?

While I am writing this, I feel quite ashamed because this afternoon, when starting the conversation with this new business contact of mine, it turned out that she was not the one I thought she was, i.e., she was from a different company. The reason was clear: I had written to three people today and could not tell the names apart in relation to their respective company backgrounds. This was not a tragedy, she clarified it right away. But the problem is: This would not have happened to me not too long ago. I stopped being a hyper-perfectionist quite a while ago but preparing carefully for conversations did not go under the label of perfectionism for me, I simply considered this to be professional. No, I still do!

I actually expect other people to have a basic idea of who I am and what I might be able to share with them before having a meeting or call. But nowadays, this approach seems to be outdated. Everybody chats with everybody else. Quite often, this leads to the fact that a meeting does not even exceed the level of small talk. How would you ever be able to ask target-oriented questions if you are busy finding out what the other person actually does for most of the time? You know what: I do not want this. And it was quite a wake-up call for me today that this faux pas with the name mix-up happened. If carelessness, lack of preparation, and lack of interest in the individual are features of the “New Work” world — I can happily abstain from some of them.

“… something much better emerges through their tough analytical thinking and a little dreaming.” This sentence, of course, speaks right to my heart. This was also something that we briefly touched upon in the conversation. For me, it is always difficult to explain what I do. I usually focus on explaining one of my roles and this is it, depending on the issue at hand. So, today, I was in the “business” role, meaning I wanted to learn more about the needs of people in certain positions and about the current challenges in their organizations.

As it often happens in good conversations, however, this one role does not suffice to explain why I am asking certain questions or contributing certain ideas. This also happened today in the context of our New Work topic. I felt I had to explain that part of my “mission” is to bridge the gap between business and the university with a particular focus on educating humanities students and young researchers in a way that they can take over leadership positions. The reason for this is not simply that I insist there should be interdisciplinary parity for parity’s sake. The reason simply is that I am convinced (and research confirms this) that the good old one-way thinking of business graduates needs to end. We need people with a radically different perspective and value set to steer our companies.

This interdisciplinary mixture of the sciences and the humanities, including the arts, is what this combination of “analytical thinking and a little dreaming” means to me. Analytical thinking, including number crunching, has value, no doubt. But this drops to almost zero nowadays if there are no creative ‘weirdos’ involved who see things in a different way and who question things that nobody else in the room even notices. Besides, I am aware that I myself am drawing a binary image here by treating analytical thinking and dreaming as opposites. Of course, dreamers can think analytically and vice versa. But this dual approach just seeks to underline how important both perspectives are.

To me, this issue is really haunting me these days. I cannot let go of the goal of helping to push the transformation of higher education into the direction of finally accepting that the artificial separation of academic disciplines is outdated and needs to be overcome as quickly as possible. And I have decided to work for this, no matter how seemingly useless it might sound from a mere business perspective (in the “old” work world). Even though I hardly ever realize this while in the middle of the process, I have always been one of these individual change agents that Kotter regards as crucial for fostering change. I am convinced people who feel they can translate between different worlds, should make the effort and try. We have the luxury of being able to speak in different tongues with people from the “old” business world and the “new,” with people from the analytical side and the dreamers. It is up to us to drive change.

Reflection Questions

1) Are you a change leader in your organization? If not, what is the role in which you create maximum value?

2) Is there an important professional habit that you have lost/given up recently in times of Work 4.0? Do you want to keep it that way?

3) Do you feel you are keeping a balance between analytical and creative/intuitive thinking or do you consciously focus on one of these options?

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Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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Silke Schmidt

Silke Schmidt

Founder & CEO of Companypoets

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