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Terry Paulson Keynote Speaker & Author

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Is There an Offramp to All This Change?

by Terry Paulson, PhD, CSP, CPAE

A struggling screenwriter once asked, "I'm starving trying to make it in Hollywood. I have a friend who writes for training films. Do you think I could do that while working my way into Hollywood?" The instructor quickly replied, "Don't touch them! They are entirely different animals. Hollywood is into creating unresolved tension to get people to watch from beginning to end. Training films are into giving answers all the way through. There is no tension; that is why they are so boring." Now there's an insight! I've written many articles on change but few as unsettling as this one. I'm not writing to bring closure but to generate a little tension in a world that wants simple answers and an offramp from all this change.

Let's start with an unsettling truth, change will never be over. We want life to be tied up like the end of a movie. In reality, life is more like a serial than a movie. The show is never over in the real world. We've got to be ready to battle formidable competitors everyday, forever, without a break, and you will need to find ways to fix all flat tires while moving! Instead of trying to relieve stress by giving people the promise of calm after some reorganization or reengineering effort, and then watch the trust take a dive when the next change is announced, be honest-- "We are never going to be done. Be excited; you will never be bored again!" As Andy Grove, the Intel CEO has said, "Only the paranoid survive."

Let's keep the tension growing. Not every change is for the better! That's right... I've written it. While it is true that every improvement is the result of change, not every change is an improvement. The past has value, and it will continue to have value. At the same time, the past shouldn't have a veto. You need to take the best from the past and best from the future to forge your way into the next century. That means turmoil. If you ever felt that certain people in your organization were designed to frustrate you, you are probably right. Somewhere in the struggle for the best strategy you need to keep the change agents and status quo seekers talking together to get the best out of both. Neither has a lock on truth so don't take sides!

In a changing world, leaders value experience, but they don't value employees or leaders that rest in that experience. To rest in past skills is to guarantee obsolescence. In short, you have more tension. Use your learning skills to master new competencies or lose out to those that are willing to do just that. Value what you know but keep investing 5% of your time in your next career at all times. Live lifelong learning.

In this age of constant change, the commitment to quality is no longer just an option; it is the entry ticket into the global economy. But although the pursuit of perfect products and services is a worthy goal, it is a goal that will never reach fruition. The only places that perfect people exist are in educational movies; they have a script and can practice it until they get it right. In the real world, while you pursue perfection, the world is asking you to take quantum leaps into a world without any roadmaps. Many are so concerned about doing things perfectly, that they settle for perfecting outdated processes and wait too long to embrace new changes. In the pursuit of perfection, they create risk-aversive environments. Build in surprise and adventure to match your commitment to quality. The earlier you risk and make your errors, the sooner you can turn it into useful experience. Take the trap out of excellence by striving for quality without waiting for the perfect thought, the perfect action, or the perfect time. You won't even do this perfectly, but that's OK, neither does anyone else.

In our increasingly cynical world, the most important task of any leader is to keep hope alive. But even with hope, there needs to be tension. Good leaders have an optimistic view of the future, but there's no Pollyanna! They promote a healthy tension by balancing the hope of strategic success with a realistic assessment of the obstacles that must be overcome to reach it. They tell the truth--life is difficult but teams can collectively overcome the obstacles if they persevere! Sell the hope. Tell the truth. Believe in your people.

While we are talking about vision, let's also talk about the need to keep any vision compelling and flexible. Without a compelling vision of the future and realistic assessment of the current reality, people won't be motivated to move or be hopeful of success. But unfortunately, clear crystal balls are in short supply. Good leaders must again manage the tension. Instead of waiting for a perfect vision, risk refining it as you move. With input from your stakeholders, forge, communicate and drive a fuzzy but strategic focus. Help all realize that an imperfect 10 degrees of direction is still better than having to tackle 360 degrees of limitless chaos. Since your destination will never be reached or fully defined, you must keep adjusting your vision as your people and customers provide course-correction data from real-world experience.

A finance department sign speaks to the reality most face: "Nothing inspires genius like a tight budget." But people are tired of hearing more with less. Rosebeth Moss Kanter provides another dose of healthy tension, "Excellent companies are very tight and very loose." Most companies are either tight or loose. When things are going well, they are loose all over--buy that equipment and hire those people. When things get tight, they get tight all over. You need money? Take up a collection at the airports. You need people? Have children! Excellent companies are tight and loose. Be tight everywhere you can be tight and loose wherever you can add value to a customer that can pay. No more uniform funding; you justify resources by adding real value. In short, the old message was more with less. Today, it is do less with less. Be focused, be flexible, and get everyone working smart on real priorities that are worth doing.

We all want answers, but what we get is more tension and constant change. Just maybe the best truths for our age reside in managing the tensions. The next century brings challenges and opportunities. Get busy making that tension work for you and your team.

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