Nov 6, 2008

Power of Change - Lessons from the Elections

Now that the elections have passed seems to be a good moment to talk about the relationship between change, creativity and innovation.

During this long campaign I have several discussions with followers of the McPalin ticket that were accusing Obama of being a "socialist" just because he said "spread the wealth".

None of them were able to answer a simple question though: Why when Obama said "spread the wealth" they perceive that as socialism but when Gov. Palin said that "we’re set up, unlike other states in the union, where it’s collectively Alaskans own the resources. So we share in the wealth when the development of these resources occurs" they didn't see that as "socialist" at all.

For the record, I don't believe that any of those comments per se indicates a socialist way of thinking but socialism and communism are mostly about collectively owning the means of production and sharing the wealth equally. So, if you were going to take things really literally Ms. Palin's comment was way more on the left than Obama's comment.

As I said, none of them were able to respond my original question. And then it stroke me... CHANGE was the culprit! It is the same in business. Let me explain this further.

Of course there is probably a (hopefully) very small percentage of the population that have perceived those two so similar statements in such a different way just because of the colour of the skin of each candidate. But leaving those aside, I am sure the big difference was that Obama also was talking about change and Palin wasn't.

Change is a word or a concept that actually scares a lot of people. I am not talking politics here, I am talking life and business. Of course change by itself has no right or wrong --like a hammer can be used for good or for bad. Nevertheless for some people it is difficult to see it as something positive.

Why? It can be several reasons. In some cases, they feel they are "ok" as they are now, so... why change? In other cases it's that they find it difficult to imagine something better even when it may be obvious for the rest. An interesting example of that are some battered women that can't even think about leaving their husbands... life is bad for them but the change that leaving him may mean scares them more than the actual beatings. They can see the benefits of not suffering anymore but they can't imagine a how they can manage if things change so much.

And then -last but not least- there are the ones that are scared by the idea of change because they are not sure about themselves: could they adapt to that change? What if that change actually exposes what they feel are their weaknesses? Similar to the previous case it has a side of "fear to the unknown" that when mixed with their own lack of self-esteem (or poor self-esteem) transforms that word in a big bad wolf. It doesn't matter how many times you explain to them what the change is about; their main problem is themselves, they just don't want to be exposed to any type of change.

Now, can anyone bring change to the table? Yes and no. Anyone can bring a new idea that implies change. But to actually be able to make that change happen you need more than the idea. According to a very interesting document from the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) when it comes to "change management" these are some of the practical difficulties that will appear:

- There are no easy solutions.
- There will be a need to adapt processes to suit the change intended.
- Change requires teamwork and leadership (and the two are related).
- You have to work with the culture (even when you want to change it).
- You need to communicate, communicate, communicate...

This makes pretty clear that it's easier to talk about change than to actually manage that change. Politicians and businessmen are equally prone to talk about "change and innovation" but few of them have what it takes to be able to manage it. What also explains some other fears related to change, the ones that we may have from previous bad experiences. "The road to hell is paved with good intentions"...what can be extended to "good intentions of change, bad managed".

Can change be bad? Of course it can! It may have "bad intentions" from the beginning or it may have the best intentions but a crappy implementantion and end up being a disaster. But remember, if it wasn't for change we would probably still be living in caves!

Now, going back to politics so far it seems that Obama has some of the qualities needed to manage change. He clearly knows that there are no easy solutions, he has already work on adapting some processes to get the part of the change intended (he draw more people to vote than any other elected official), his campaign showed a very well balanced mix of leadership and teamwork and it seems obvious that he knows how to communicate as well as how important is to communicate often and directly.

If you have any doubt about this last point I have two words for you: check As a strategist myself I am amazed with the communication side of this campaign: three days after the election a new site is up and running with part of the elected President agenda, a place to share your ideas on the topics and even a form to apply for a non-career job with this administration. Now --that's planification!

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