Change: Opportunity or Agony

jenga“Embracing change” is a common mantra. However, experiencing change is a certain reality. With it comes a series of choices for everyone involved. Perhaps, the game of Jenga(tm) demonstrates these choices. As you may know, Jenga consists of wooden blocks shaped like tiny beams. The game starts with the beams stacked tightly, three per layer, alternating them vertically and horizontally. The object is to manually dislodge any block from the tower and place it on a new layer at the very top; expanding the tower upwards until it topples from lack of support below or is blown by a strong gust of wind.

Like Jenga, a business also grows using its assets, strengths and opportunities to build customers and market share.

To continue comparing Jenga to running an enterprise, perhaps you could use two different perspectives. The player of the game is like the executives of the organization, moving around structural blocks to expand the organization. This executive has a 360 degree view of the tower with the ability to stress test the blocks before dedicating them for the move; and can scope the environment for threats to the construction such as a shaky playing table or strong winds.

The contrasting view is that of the employees impacted by the move within an organization; perhaps visualized as tiny ants clinging to the moved block. These individuals have an intimate knowledge of this specific block. They know each dent, scratch and slight change in color. They know how snugly it fits against the neighboring blocks (the nitty-gritties necessary to accomplish a job) and how it informally interacts with others. But this internal perspective lacks the comprehensive view. From within the safety of the tightly-built fortress, workers may not sense the unstable foundation or feel the gusts.

As a block is selected those associated with it can be hurled into significant change. One’s first reaction at the vibration may be to grab on as hard as possible to the comfort of the block. Despite the desperation, it takes very little time to see that the forces are overpowering and a significant change is imminent. At this point, there are really two broad choices: resist or cooperate.

The consequences of the first choice, resistance, can lead to demise. To explain this, let’s consider the two forms of resistance – denial and defiance.

Denying the seriousness of the changing forces will severely cripple the industry. Current examples of underestimating the impact of an impending change are seen with traditional media. After reluctance, newspapers, magazines, local broadcast television and radio eventually adopted the Internet. Through applying their respective traditional medium’s paradigm to the Internet forum, they used it as the broadcasting and publishing vehicle. Newspapers, for example, started by replicating their publication online and updating the sites daily after street publication. Internet users expecting more immediate news discontinued their subscriptions to the physical newspapers and started viewing news on new Internet news sites that refreshed content frequently.

The other form of resistance, defiance, could cause alienation with peers who tire of negative attitudes. Excessive defiant behavior could lead to dismissal from those who perceive it as obstructive.

In contrast, the option of cooperation, could lead to quite different outcomes. If the change is from competitive or industrial pressure, adapting to the changes’ new opportunities could put you in the driver’s seat. Those Internet sites that enabled the viewer to customize content offer an example of seizing the opportunity to lead the industry. In Jenga, a beam moved to the top is exposed to uncomfortable drafts, unfamiliar elements and added visibility. The gusts and vulnerability could be threatening. Also, the fall is farther if knocked off. However, the experiences gained are the essence of leadership.

Another recent example is the trend to stop travel expense. Geographically dispersed employees, trainers and consultants can overcome this obstacle by mastering the various technologies to be productive remotely. As organizations adopt these methods, the paradigms of phone etiquette, correspondence and meeting presentations will morph into new standards. Those of us who have adapted will benefit professionally.

Other gloomy headlines tout that many companies have fallen, or as in Jenga, the towers have toppled. Those who have fallen into the heap are left with the challenge to adapt to a new reality. After some brushing off, skills can be applied to participate in a new tower. Existing knowledge and tools will be augmented by wisdom for the next cycle of industrial changes.

As professionals, we need to recognize that external forces will cause us to make some hard decisions. To react with leadership, we should seek opportunities in the changes, communicate the realities and urge others to accept them.