Look around you. In most organizations, even in fast companies, you'll find colleagues who have given up. They're disillusioned, disengaged, even cynical. Somewhere along the line, they were disappointed by dumb decisions, passed over for key promotions or raises, or just beaten down by banging their heads against a bureaucratic wall day after day.
Asking these folks to commit to any kind of meaningful transformation seems like a waste of time. Indeed, as our cover story on the psychology of change confirms, the odds of making lasting changes are almost always against us — even when our very lives are at stake. That troubling fact only underscores the difficulty of altering the culture or direction of an enterprise populated by thousands of different people with different agendas.
Truth is, as John W. Gardner once pointed out in his inspiring book Self-Renewal, we construct our own prisons and often serve as our own jail keepers. "We have to face the fact that most men and women out there in the world of work are more stale than they know, more bored than they care to admit," Gardner once said.
Yet we know how crucial it is to evolve, to change, to grow, and to learn. This is a magazine dedicated to the belief that change is at the core of human fulfillment and sustainable competitiveness. When a person's internal clock is frozen in time, when he or she has given up on growing and learning, that person has lost one of the most precious gifts of a well-lived life. And if people in an organization can't change, that organization will die.
As senior writer Alan Deutschman points out in his groundbreaking story "Making Change," change is the most important challenge for businesses that are trying to compete in a turbulent world. We can talk forever about strategy, structure, process, and culture. But more than anything, competition is about change — and your company's ability to stay fresh and vital depends on its ability to change the behavior of people.
So how do we shift the odds in our favor? Here's what the new insights from psychology and neuroscience in Alan's story have to teach us:
- Real change isn't motivated by either crisis or fear. The best inspiration comes from leaders who can create compelling and positive visions of the future.
- Small, gradual changes rarely lead to transformation. Radical, sweeping changes are riskier but often more effective, because they quickly yield benefits visible to everyone.
- Narratives, not facts, guide our thinking. Data on declining market share or quality problems won't get employees to change what they do. Rather, appeals rooted in emotion are what best inspire people to alter course.
For the past 22 months, Fast Company itself has been a laboratory for change. We've reinvented the magazine to better fulfill its mission of teaching our readers how to make their work lives more meaningful and productive. And from the start, we've appealed to people's ability to grow and learn. I know that there has never been another time in my own professional life when I have experienced greater personal growth. I think that's also true for many of the people who work here with me.
That quest for growth is the most compelling reason for change. Gardner expressed it eloquently in a speech he gave 15 years ago. "Life," he said, "is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities, I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving, and aspiring."
I can think of no better reason not to give up, not to run down like an unwound clock. We change, we grow, and we truly live.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.