Organizational Change
In Search of Sustainable Leadership:
Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage

This is the second in a series of articles examining ‘sustainable leadership’ and what it entails. Find links to the full series below.

We start our search for sustainable leadership with a quote from Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This rule has applied to all successful innovations, from the bronze age that replaced the stone age, to the iron age, the industrial revolution, electricity and smartphones; these innovations succeeded because they made what existed before obsolete.

The same applies to sustainability. So, the first goal of sustainable leadership must be to “make existing models of leadership obsolete.”

The ability to use stress to become stronger is the foundation of ‘sustainability’ for any organization. It is the first step towards creating Buckminster Fuller’s “new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This is why purpose and values matter: not because of any moral high ground but because in times of change, they bring stability and direction. By defining and then acting in line with their purpose and values, leaders and their organizations become more able to handle change. This brings competitive advantage that becomes stronger with each challenge they face. And it is the first building block of sustainable leadership. This article by Finn Jackson describes the central core of sustainable leadership: a way to bring your organization a form of competitive advantage that grows stronger with every challenge you face.

From Coping with Change to Thriving Because of Change

We are living through a time of radical change. The management jargon calls it a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. I call it simply The Churning.

No matter what you call it, the fact is that in this churning world any organization that cannot cope with change will fail. And organizations that cope better with change will have competitive advantage: over time they will become more successful, and more sustainable.

This means the first task of sustainable leadership is to teach us not only how to survive change but to use change to become stronger.

To see how we can accomplish this, let’s look first at the way change happens in organizations. Then let’s look at how to make it happen better.

Change in any organization follows a sequence of four steps:

  • These begin when someone notices a potential issue (or opportunity) and raises this to the organization.
  • If the organization agrees the issue is important, it then makes plans to address the matter.
  • Step 3 is execution: the organization implements its change plan.

These three steps define most organizational change programs:

  • But then, each person affected by the change goes through a psychological and emotional transition. Some of these will be large, others small. But, for better or worse, these experiences then reshape the world views of each affected person: either confirming more deeply what they knew already or teaching them something different. This is Step 4.

The next time these people find themselves in a situation where change might be needed (back to Step 1), they will use these new world views, and their learning from what happened last time, to decide how they will respond: whether or not they will speak up and how they will do so (see Arrow 5, below).

Charting this process, from planning to execution, from individual to organization, and back again, gives us a picture I call the ‘Cycle of Leadership’. This is how change happens in organizations:

If we want to improve our organization’s ability to handle change, there are just two ways to do so: Either we can improve the way we carry out each step, or (better) we can close the loop.

To understand this, imagine an organization that says one thing but does another. Perhaps it says it encourages risk-taking but actually only rewards people who meet their financial targets. Such an organization might move successfully through the first three stages of change, but it will fail at the fourth and fifth to close the loop. Instead, people will learn from experience not to believe what they are told. This will make them less willing and able to address new issues (Steps 1 and 2) and more resistant to future changes (Steps 3 and 4). Over time, the organization’s ability to respond to change will degrade.

But imagine instead an organization that shows consistency in what it says and does: an organization that defines a set of purpose and values, then actively applies them in its day-to-day operations and decision-making. Such an organization closes the loop. What happens next is a kind of magic.

An organization that lives in line with its stated purpose and values teaches its people by example. When new issues arise, this deeper understanding helps people know more clearly which issues matter and which do not (Step 1). Their added clarity and confidence then helps people to create new plans (Step 2), implement them (Step 3), and handle their transitions (Step 4). In other words, by defining a set of purpose and values and putting them at the heart of its operations and decision-making, the organization increases its ability to change. This brings competitive advantage.

And there is more. At the end of each cycle, the organization gets to review and update its purpose and values so that when the next challenge arises, it becomes even more able to identify the issue and address it.

In this way, by switching from linear to circular management, both the organization and its people become able not only to survive crises and change but to actually become stronger because of crises and change. They become what Nicholas Nassim Taleb calls ‘Antifragile.’

Things that break under pressure we call ‘fragile.’ Things that do not break under pressure we call ‘strong,’ ‘robust’ or ‘resilient.’ And Taleb calls things, people and systems that actually become stronger when placed under pressure, ‘antifragile’.

This ability to use stress to become stronger is the foundation of ‘sustainability’ for any organization. It is the first step towards creating Buckminster Fuller’s “new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is why purpose and values matter: not because of any moral high ground but because in times of change, they bring stability and direction. By defining and then acting in line with their purpose and values, leaders and their organizations become more able to handle change. This brings competitive advantage that becomes stronger with each challenge they face. And it is the first building block of sustainable leadership.

We will return to purpose and values in the sixth article of this series. But for now, our next step is to understand more clearly how to make Arrow 5 happen. For that, we need to look more closely at Step 4, managing transitions, which is the focus of the next article.

In Search of Sustainable Leadership, the series:

  1. In Search of Sustainable Leadership
  2. Building Antifragile Competitive Advantage
  3. Managing Transitions
  4. Creating Inspiration
  5. An Opportunity Mindset
  6. Choosing a Way Forward
  7. Keep Your Head When They Are Losing Theirs
  8. Infinite Growth on a Finite Planet
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