One of the first films I saw dealing with change was Survival Skills for the Future, with Jennifer James. I can still remember (pretty much verbatim) a sequence in that film where she explains the new world order:
“I ask employees, ‘What’s wrong?’ and they say, ‘Our managers don’t know what they’re doing.’ I ask the managers and they say, ‘Our executives don’t know what they’re doing.’ I ask the executives, ‘Is this true?’ and they say, ‘Yes!'”
I work a lot with people who are trying to survive in a world of perpetual change and the common feeling they share is frustration, whatever their organizational level. When I dig a little deeper, though, the cause of the frustration is not so much the change cycle or the transition process but something else.
People are frustrated that they never feel a sense of completion in their work.
There are two variations of this experience. The first is the simple, “done with one thing, on to the next thing.” This gets very old after a while, because people never get to celebrate their victories or process what they learned from the experience. Without some kind of pause to acknowledge the ending of a project, people feel cheated and unappreciated. They can’t stand back from the canvas and appreciate the painting when it’s done. I call this Assembly Line Change because it’s the same monotonous experience on a different time scale.
The second variation gets back to the Jennifer James passage, particularly the line, “Our executives don’t know what they’re doing.” The causes are a lack of commitment to and the absence of consensus on an intelligent strategy, which leads executives to steer the company as if they were driving in a Grand Prix on a treacherous mountain road towards an unknown destination. Rather than pull over, look at the map and make course corrections, they abandon one strategy for another and talk themselves into believing that it will work. This is what employees called “getting jerked around,” and its frequency has increased with the economic malaise we’ve all suffered through.
When an employee thinking about leaving a company that’s going through Grand Prix Change comes to me for advice, I abandon my usually neutral, let-me-help-you-think-things-through counseling approach and say, “Yes. Get the hell out, now!” Eventually the car is going to stall and there the executive will sit, cranking the starter again and again while shouting, “Why won’t this damn thing work?”
Assembly Line Change, on the other hand, is fixable. Great leaders know that you build milestones into a project and celebrate what Kouzes and Posner call “small wins.” They also know that you need to build time into the schedule for celebrating successes so people can recharge their batteries and move to the next project with energy and confidence.
Change isn’t going to go away, and neither are bad leaders. Let’s hope we can continue to develop leaders who will choose to make sure that people have the chance to feel a sense of completion and accomplishment in their work. Because we derive so much personal meaning from our work in modern society, feeling a sense of completion is a critical need in the the workplace today.