Jim Christenson recently retired after serving 40 years in university and federal facilities management. He can be reached at jchriste @umich.edu. This is his first Field Notes column for Facilities Manager.
It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.
In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.
How long has it been since someone talked to you about change? Five days? More likely, five minutes. And how was the word used? Probably as a six-letter incarnation of a four-letter word.
People tell us that computer power doubles every 18 months and that engineering knowledge now has a half-life of four years. We observe that the "new" workforce is different than the "old" workforce. And we see organizations turned upside down every six months. Sometimes it feels like we're hanging onto a log about to go over Niagara Falls.
And then we hear Tom Peters, one of America's popular business writers and speakers, promoting ideas like "Crazy times call for crazy organizations," "Failure is the breath of life," or "The only way to fail these days is not to 'try stuff!" Peters says that business organizations have to radically shake things up to stay competitive. He is saying stop playing the part of the victim of change, cause change. Is he right? Does what he says have any bearing on our business of education facilities management?
Tom Peters and Stephen Covey are very different people. But they and many other observers of the American scene agree on several basics:
Whatever terms are used, voices around us speak constantly of change. Some remind us that "we have always done it this way." Others tell us to "Stop doing what you are doing. Change your direction or you'll be extinct." We are told repeatedly that people don't like change. Could it be, as some suggest, that people don't naturally resist change, but that they resist being changed. And, perhaps, what they really don't like is the personal transition required to change.
Having just retired, I decided that a logical first topic for me to write about is change. It is logical for me not just because I'm personally going through a transition now, but also because my life's work has been a continuous stream of changes that also required transitions. Since 1958, I have served in 17 facilities management positions within 13 organ- izations, in 12 different locations, on three continents, for five employers. For the first 20 years of our 42-year marriage, my wife and I moved an average of 7,000 miles. We are presently living in our sixteenth house. If change really causes stress, I should have been stressed out long before now-and my wife should have left me 30 years ago. But, beyond my personal world, are any of you who read this exempt from change? Do you really want to be exempt?
William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, makes an interesting observation. He says, "It isn't the changes that do you in, it's the transitions… .Transition is a psychological process people go through to come to terms with a new situation. Change is external, transition is internal."
Too often, change is imposed abruptly. Bridges has a great picture that he sometimes sets before an audience as he talks about managing transitions. It shows two landmasses separated by a crocodile-infested swamp. The CEO (read chief facilities officer, chief financial officer, or college president) and his immediate staff have just landed on the new landmass in their executive helicopter. Hundreds of staff members are in rowboats, trying to find their way among the intervening islands, beating off the crocodiles with their oars. And back on the old landmass are the engineers and accountants, who haven't noticed that everyone else has left.
It doesn't take much imagination to recognize the situation represented by the picture. The CEO had this great vision of what his company could become. He shared enough of his vision to convince his executive team to come along for the ride. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to support this vision, but they think that, by arriving at the destination themselves, the change has been made. If these executives really looked beyond the executive team, though, they would see that very little has changed. The workers don't understand the vision and don't know the direction. Some, not realizing that a change has been ordered, don't know their new role and are fearful of a hundred things.
Bridges, to illustrate change, cites the story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. The required change-the vision-was crystal-clear to Moses: get these folks out of slavery to the freedom of the Promised Land. But the transition-the psychological process the people had to go through to come to terms with the change-was another story. After they were underway, Egypt somehow seemed a lot better to them than the uncertainties of the wilderness. Incredibly, they repeatedly pleaded to return to the certainty of harsh slavery. In fact, they were so distrustful and fearful that they were forced to wander in the wilderness 40 years, until the old generation had died off, before the big change could be successfully made.
Getting rid of the present population to make a change is far too radical! There has got to be a better way for our facilities organizations to successfully cross into the promised land of better technology, outstanding customer service, full accountability, and self-direction.
Change management requires that the vision be well understood by everyone. Unless most of the team has that understanding and is convinced that the vision is valid, it won't be realized.
But even with a clear vision, successful transition management can only happen if people are convinced to leave home. When changes happen, there are losses. Often it is important to allow people to grieve those losses. It is also important not to condemn the honest efforts that went into the service as it was being performed. Under the past circumstances, resources, and vision, people were probably doing their best. That should be recognized and honored. There should be time to listen to people discuss the past and the potential losses. Phillip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, suggested, "Many a man would rather you heard his story than granted his request." What "used to be" must be ended before the new can be birthed. Further, it must be clear what aspects of the past need changing. Should everything be dumped? In most cases, that would be an error of strategic proportions. What stays and what goes must be decided.
William Bridges calls the time between the old ways and the new ways the "neutral zone," or the wilderness. He compares it to being between trapezes. There is nothing to hold onto. It's a time of chaos. Henry Adams, American historian, suggested that, "Chaos often breeds life, while order breeds habit." The chaos of the neutral zone offers a unique advantage. The organization's usual obstacles to the adoption of new ideas are in disarray, permitting creative ideas to thrive and take root. Being between trapezes brings discomfort, yet it can be a time of exhilaration and growth.
Floating between trapezes, though, is an activity with a finite time limit. Before that limit is reached, one must catch the new trapeze. In the work world, however, it doesn't have to be grabbed all at once. While still in the neutral zone, movement in the right direction can be assured by achieving some quick successes, no matter how small. As Bridges states, this reassures believers, convinces doubters, and confounds the critics.
For the leader-whether that leader is you or your boss-change can be satisfying, even thrilling. By con- sciously managing the transition that accompanies the change, you can let the people in your organization in on a bit of that satisfaction and thrill.
Next time, some more thoughts on change, especially the why of change.