Staying sane in the era of perpetual change

February 5, 2024

Not long ago my colleague was with a client discussing the prospect of the next decade as an age of perpetual uncertainty andvolatility, a time when the need for resiliency will be unrelenting.

“God,” she said,”that sounds exhausting.” She meant it.

Organizations are exhorted to be eternally nimble to stay ahead of shifts in the world that appear to arrive from every direction. This is happening against a background of social and political tumult that does not quit, and which is more than just background noise to our working lives.

In such a context, is it humanly possible to be endlessly flexible and ready for change?

Organizations, like all systems, need to evolve, to self-correct. If change efforts drag on exhaustion sets in. Goals go unmet. People get cynical. News of new “initiatives” is greeted with a big eyeroll.

This is a winnable challenge.


Bear in mind that there are distinct kinds of change. Change in the service of survival, for example, can be enervating. With the right kind of leadership it can also be exhilarating.

For our purposes, let’s talk about change that implies a business model that is sound but needs to be more efficient. This can be the most challenging kind of change to sustain if it creates a culture of constant grinding to squeeze ever greater value from thebusiness.

Change of this type typically focuses on delivering greater value to shareholders. It can generate a relentless pursuit of optimization that beats down the sense of purpose so central to morale.

Perpetual pressure to optimize and optimize and optimize can steal the things that make a job fun and subject us to more oversight. No one wants to work like that. No one wants to live like that.

The behavior of people in groups is complicated, as you may have observed. Their behavior in a world in which we spend so much of time remote from one another is still being explored. But most of us understand complexity and the need to optimize. We also know when leadership is blowing smoke.

Believing in a shared objective

The rationale for making our businesses more efficient needs to be about more than change. Leaders are the ones who set the tone.

Obama would tell stories, Reagan would establish a vibe. But individuals do the work. Winning commitment for long-haul change takes belief in a shared objective that will bring rewards to all of us.

Smart, direct communication is always an attribute of successful change-management, never more so than when an organization is already struggling with fear and exhaustion.

The goal of communication should be empowerment of individuals in an organization to think strategically. They need to feel a personal stake in the outcome ofchange.

This is accomplished by addressing our sense of mission and purpose. The mission vs. margin conversation is an honest conversation, and it needs to be had.

There is a body of research demonstrating correlation between purpose and profits. The formula is simple: When people are committed change becomes easier. It follows that the drive for efficiencies must described in terms that show that it is in service to the mission.

Absent this you shouldn’t wonder that an organization asks, “Why are we doing this?”

People in organizations do not want to be cynical. They want to feel like their individual contribution makes a difference in accomplishing big things.

Smart leaders are strategic in the pursuit of efficiency. They know the difference between big ideas and chasing nickels and dimes. They know the difference between being forceful and being ajerk.

There is everything to be said for being affable in moments of great stress; again, think of Reagan and Obama. People want to like their leaders. It is an aspect of respect that keeps a shared sense of purpose afloat.

In the thick of change good leaders are honest. They do not use euphemisms, for instance. They acknowledge a problem and do not call it an “opportunity.” No one is fooled by wiggle words.

How to ask for more change when life is already hard? Effective leaders pick their spots. They are judicious in pursuing ever greater efficiencies. They look for opportunities to reduce friction and increase individual feelings of agency. They prioritize the things that are irritating to a workforce: workflows and policies. This happy result is more efficiency.

Ask any change-management consultant, for instance, and they will tell you how much they like working with client teams. The reason is that people working at levels below senior leadership are eager for a green light to solve problems. Their energy is infectious. They are sustained by their belief.

This essay is written in collaboration with , Kevin McDermott , the founder of Collective Intelligence in New York and a principal in the well-known scenario-planning firm, Futures Strategy Group.

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