Modern-day management means accepting change

November 1, 2007
Gerhard Pohl, PhD

Four megatrends affect the way we live and work today. These are globalization, technological advancement, the move from production- to service-based industries, and demographic change. Changes caused by these trends will pose challenges, but these challenges can be managed.

Four megatrends affect the way we live and work today. These are globalization, technological advancement, the move from production- to service-based industries, and demographic change. Changes caused by these trends will pose challenges, but these challenges can be managed.

Take globalization, for example. On a local scale, we can see that our places of work are becoming more complex. They may be merging with other sites or forging links with suppliers in different countries or continents. The challenge here is uncertainty-what is really going on in the organization? We have to be more flexible and cope with the risks inherent in complex systems. Borders between work and life are blurring as well. If good management means being available around the clock, what does this do to personal relationships?

The workforce and work ethos are also changing. The trend toward a service-based economy means we need to focus on people skills. In addition, younger people are loyal to their careers rather than to their employees. They are constantly looking for a better job, rather than settling where they are.

When change happens, we can choose how to react. This is shown in the make-believe story of two mice and two miniature humans. Every day, the mice and humans find their way to a cheese station, which is always in the same place. But one day, the cheese is not there. The mice start searching for the cheese and eventually find a new cheese station. The miniature humans return to the original cheese station day after day and complain that it is still empty. The message of this story applies to big issues as well as simple problems. When change occurs we can stay where we are and complain, or we can move on. We have that choice.

Individuals and organizations tend to react to change by preserving the status quo instead of moving on. Systems theorists tell us that systems tend to keep their status. Psychologists tell us that we don't like to change because we fear an uncertain future. Management trainers say we choose to stay in our comfort zone. If changes come about, many people tend to stay in their comfort zone. Change management means coming out of that comfort zone and going into the learning zone. This doesn't necessarily mean entering the panic zone, but we do have to move from that point where we feel comfortable.

Change is essential for evolution, development, learning, and growing. This applies to organizations as much as individuals. We should not fear something that is helping us to learn and grow.

What about the systems argument? A strategy of conservation-working to preserve the status quo-is of use only to closed systems. Hospitals are not closed systems; they are complex systems involving cooperation among doctors, nurses, administrators, IT staff, and numerous external partners. If we try to behave as if we are in a closed system, then that will cause trouble. Conflicts in the workplace can indicate that you are resisting change or not managing change in the right way.

To manage change, we can employ five disciplines:

  • personal mastery: the art of self-leadership, which is how we achieve our goals;

  • mental models: exploring our own assumptions and beliefs;

  • team vision: ensuring that everyone relates to the same vision of where change will take you;

  • team learning: enhancing our dialogue skills to understand interaction and patterns of cooperation (e.g., a team of high-skilled managers is not working more effectively than a low-skilled group of staff if they cannot cooperate effectively with one another); and

  • systems thinking: understanding how things are connected to each other and our own place within that network.

In summary, stability is no longer guaranteed by traditional conservation strategies. We all need to learn to accept change as a challenge that can be managed and learn about specific management skills that can be taught. Be aware of the personal and professional creative process behind challenges and take responsibility for your constant personal growth by reflecting on your beliefs and assumptions.

DR. POHL is director of a disease prevention service in a nongovernmental organization and coordinating trainer of MIR (Management in Radiology). He is based in Munster, Germany.