Embracing Change

“I’m fascinated by change.”

When I hear people say things like that, I find the analyst in me rising to the surface. My response comes easily as I eagerly share ideas about the interesting patterns of change, the dynamics of emerging change, and the time horizon necessary to facilitate change. I love change.

Then the leader in me appears on the scene. Recalling the costs of change in human terms, I see the strain it creates as the process unfolds. I remember the intense energy it takes to manage change and enable others to participate meaningfully. I hate change.

Most of us would agree change is inevitable. Some see it coming. Others eventually acknowledge change by looking to the past to interpret a new reality in the present. A few look bewildered and simply ask, “When did things change?” or ”Why did things change?” or “Who changed things?”

The business world has given us interesting language for change. We sometimes hear, “You’re either on the train or under the train.” Sometimes we “blow away the cobwebs” or find a “breath of fresh air.” There are occasions when we “get outside the box” or “shake things up a bit.” There are, of course, situations that are far more serious when we realize we “can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs” or we encourage innovation by “turning lemons into lemonade.” The most ominous of these clichés, however, is a warning that, “You’re either at the table, or on the menu.”

Scanning the headlines provides sufficient evidence that change is occurring globally at a breathtaking pace. The role of nation-states is evolving, if not eroding. Conflicts among people groups that are centuries old are recycled in emerging generations with often violent results. Social patterns that once seemed reliable and consistent are in a state of flux and transition. These trends and many others are stirring change processes that feel less and less predictable in scope and intensity.

Closer to home, many communities and organizations are feeling the effects of these cascading waves of change as they are manifested in everyday life. We seem to be less sure about economic futures, more dependent on rapidly developing technologies, uncertain about the reliability of our physical infrastructure, increasingly concerned about the sustainability of our environment, and tested in our shared ability to lead and govern.

As we collectively prepare the coming generations of leaders to occupy the seats of power and authority in our society are we adequately preparing them to inherit the communities and organizations we will leave behind? Sometimes I wonder. We seem to want easy answers that can be expressed in tag lines, message points, and sound bites. My sense is this will not serve them. As I strain to imagine the setting in which their leadership will be expressed, I wonder if we are preparing them to ask great questions, rather than seek easy answers. Education at its best should draw young minds to think critically and creatively. Such thoughts are rooted in questions.

Embracing change, therefore, begins with a curiosity. Add to this a comfort with ambiguity and an ability to work through cognitive dissonance, and I think the essential elements begin to form. Individual determination extends our ability to cope as teamwork brings strength in numbers. Above all, patience and relentless execution enable successful change management over the long term. Learning how to do this comes from watching others and having opportunities to practice on small change challenges before we take on the larger ones. At its best, experiential learning brings these skills forward and lays pathways for attitudes and behaviors that enable us to lead through change.

In his book, Leading Change (1996), John Kotter explores the process of change, highlighting the factors that tend to determine whether an organization’s experience of change leans more in the direction of success or failure. Though this work is now nearly 20 years old, it still seems fresh and Kotter’s ideas on change have endured even through the fast-paced change we are experiencing in society today. At the end of the book, he offers the following reflection:

“As an observer of life on organizations, I think I can say with some authority that people who are making an effort to embrace the future are a lot happier than those who are clinging to the past. That is not to say that learning how to become a part of the twenty-first-century enterprise is easy. But people who are attempting to grow, to become more comfortable with change, to develop leadership skills – these men and women are typically driven by a sense that they are doing what is right for themselves, their families, and their organizations. That sense of purpose spurs them on and inspires them during rough periods.

“And those people at the top of enterprises today who encourage others to leap into the future, who help them overcome natural fears, and who thus expand the leadership capacity in their organizations – these people provide a profoundly important service to the entire human community.”

The more we enable our children to handle change, the better their futures will be. To get them there, however, we will have to change ourselves and begin asking the right questions.


About the Author

Mark Putnam

I'm the lucky individual who carries the title, 21st president of Central College in Pella, Iowa. My wife Tammy and I have two beautiful daughters, Emma and Greta. Passionate about higher education and the issues facing it and the world today, I hope to invoke an engaging conversation with all who are ready to dig in, make a difference and build for the future. Share your thoughts. I'm listening and interested.



10 responses to Embracing Change

Don Huffman says:

I agree, the better we enable our children and ourselves to handle change, the better the future will be for all of us. That should be the heart of a liberal education. It is a principle that appeals especially to those familiar with both social and biological evolution, and one of the most profound intellectual concepts having been developed within a culture that often prefers to avoid change. The future will be served and enjoyed by those who recognize changes as they occur and who welcome the opportunity which changes offer to all of us.

Tim says:

Hasn’t your comments on change always been true? Wise parents have always taught their children the value of adaptation and the inevitability of change. Have they not?

The post above is a rambling series of words that could have simply been summarized as “the only constant is change”

As the great author and poet Adam Sandler penned in the classic “Billy Madison”:

“Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.”

A bit harsh perhaps, but I expect better writing and insights from you. Not platitude followed by banal quotes with shallow thesis an takeaways.

Jeff says:

This has the tone that we must always embrace change and teach our children to do like wise. Instead, we should teach our children to evaluate the change and if the end result is good don’t let the discomfort of the “process of change” keep you from going forward.

Would you have wanted all the Germans to embrace the changes of Hitler?

There are changes going on in our society we should resist not because we are afraid of change itself, but because of where it will lead us.

Rob says:

Tim, Chill. It is just an observation giving us a chance to think about how change can affect us all. This occasional blurb from Mark lets us reflect on how we react to change. It is obvious that change is the norm, but in our work day worlds we seldom take the time reflect on the changes of the moment and how we should react. Sometimes we just react on the spur of the moment and that can have a positive outcome or a negative outcome. Taking time to reflect on possible outcomes can usually be beneficial.
Our children do need to be taught by us how to look at change in a positive way. How to deal with friends, coming into their lives and leaving. How to deal with bosses and the changes they demand/request. Teach them when to lead, when to follow and when to move away.

Jen says:

Tim, I just wanted to let you know that I agree with you and wholeheartedly appreciate your comment! (Especially the Billy Madison quote.)

Barb says:

Years ago I was asked to read the short story/book “Who Moved My Cheese”. It too is an older publication, but the tenants remain true: When you are content in life, you fail to recognize the opportunities and then something changes and you are forced to go in search of new opportunities. As long as we set an example of embracing change, our children will learn to also embrace the changes in their life. Some changes are more difficult than others, but it is the opportunities and challenges in life that shape the people we are to become.

Denise Mandi says:

I find change refreshing.
Don’t get me wrong, it can, at times, be terrifying, even tragic; but it has always been my goal to try to act in my life and not react to it.
I think of change as a wave at the seashore, sweeping aside the sandcastles of yesterday and making room for the creations of today.
While stability is helpful in making plans, change is the only constant in life. I believe that it is important that our children, at the very least, keep the inevitability of change forefront in their minds as they make their plans.
Good or bad, planned or a surprise, change is a given, and our collective future depends on the next generation’s ability to anticipate and embrace change in a positive way.

Don Huffman says:

If one understands and accepts that cultural and genetic evolution occur constantly, it necessarily follows that change is inevitable. As always the gain comes in selection of the favorable changes, and it is this makes it positive to anticipate and embrace change.

Bob Sutton says:

I think the concept of embracing change and teaching our children to embrace change is nonsense and has no more credibility than teaching our children to embrace the past. If we are going to spend time teaching our children something spend it teaching; individual human value, moral clarity, solid thoughtful decision making, intellectual honesty and enjoyment of a good life well lived. Change is just another bump in the road.

Matt Scotton says:

There are many good and thoughtful points above. Thanks for sharing (and please include your full name in the spirit of respect). I don’t read many blogs and I have replied to few. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, but here are my thoughts since my brain isn’t ready for sleep:
I think death is inevitable. I think change is a matter of perspective; when we’re in it, it can look like a tsunami. From our jet window it can look like another wave.
I think the foundation of education should be about teaching thoughtful evaluations of the universe so that we can choose, devise, and lead means to improve (which may include change).