The only constant is change: Work smarter, encourage creativity

  • Published
  • By Maj. Jim Annexstad
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Staff Judge Advocate
"Change is about different! Thinking different! Doing different! Getting different results!" -- Rolf Smith, author and leadership consultant

Newton's First Law of Motion states that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest, and that bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. They only change when a force is applied to make them move, or if they are moving, to make them stop.

The same is largely true of people and organizations -- they will seldom change their way of doing things unless something happens that causes them to reevaluate what they are doing and how they are doing it. Change is hard -- it involves questioning what you think you know and reworking your relationships with others, both inside and outside of your own organization.

As an Air Force leader, send a message that you encourage and support innovation and are willing to support proposals that challenge existing ways of doing business. Such proposals need to be well thought out, however, and proponents must demonstrate a reasonable chance of success. Suggestion boxes and other formal suggestion programs are useful, but they tend to be dismissed over time because they are often viewed as a visible management tool that no one takes seriously.

Your job is to encourage people to use these management tools, particularly for things that extend beyond your office, but also to encourage people to come to you. When given a suggestion, sit down and discuss the idea with the individual and determine if the resources are there to support it. If they are not, but the idea is still worth pursuing, figure out how to get the resources. Even if the idea is not useable, give the presenter credit for bringing it to you. If others see you as "blowing off" an idea without really considering it, you have just failed your staff and yourself.

Talk the talk, and walk the walk. Change is a process, and creating a culture of change is a journey that takes time. To create an environment conducive to positive change, it is necessary to talk about it -- perhaps a lot. Understand technology and be excited about how it can make your life better.

Attitude is contagious, and you have to make sure that yours is worth catching. But you also have to be seen as acting to further progress -- not just talking about it. Communication must be open and real. If individuals bring suggestions, you have to provide feedback. Some ideas can be implemented quickly, while others will require months of investigation and preparation.

Some decisions can be made locally while others will require approval from higher authorities. Some decisions will even require changes in governing directives. If there are resource or regulatory constraints that are preventing immediate adoption of what appears to be a good idea, let the individual or team that made the suggestion know what the problem is, and let them know what you are doing to overcome it.
If there are obstacles that can be overcome with the application of some personal persuasion on your part, either within the organization or outside it, don't be afraid to use your influence. Once people realize that honest efforts at innovation will be rewarded while resistance will not be, most of them will get on board.

Be flexible. Continuous improvement is a process and not everything you try is going to work -- and certainly not right "out of the box." Don't be afraid to modify, or even abandon, a project that is not working. The trick is doing the right thing at the right time.

Realize that people have different comfort levels with change. Provide additional support, such as formal training on new equipment or procedures when needed. You must be seen as supporting positive changes by using the new equipment or following the new procedures -- if you don't, don't expect anyone else to. Above all, be friendly and positive.

Embrace failure for good faith efforts. As the person who made IBM the dominant force in the computer world for many years, Thomas Watson Sr., said, "The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate."

Robert Shapiro at Monsanto explained to his employees that every product and project was an experiment and they fail only if their experiment was halfhearted. But a deliberate, well thought out effort that didn't succeed was not only excusable but also worthwhile.

While this concept is fine in print, it is hard to implement in the "real world." However, if you are going to lead a flight, squadron or organization that embraces and supports change, you need to make it a reality. To do that, you have to do better than tolerate "honest failure." You have to reward it. The first time you don't will be the last time anyone in your organization takes a risk they can avoid.