July 18, 2024

the destructive nature of self-preservation

a log and cable hover above a fast-moving river
photo caption: a fast-moving river in iceland. the water is crystal clear but reflecting the blue skies above. a hiking trail out of frame extends on either side. only a wooden log and a thin metal cable connect the banks of the river. who’s ready to cross it?

Everything in the universe is in a constant state of change. The change can be imperceptible like the flowing water of a river. Or it may be more like the sudden eruption of a volcano changing the world around it. Change is inevitable. Yet when change comes, most organizations act less like a stone in the river and more like the city drowning in ash.

Why is that? In part, leaders at an organization feel responsible for its survival. Some see their role in governance as fending off the very change that threatens them. “How do we weather the economic downturn?” We cut budgets and hope for a brighter future. “How do we lead during the boom years?” We cut budgets and prepare for the next downturn. Some people consider this responsible leadership. I think it is sentimental attachment to a leadership style more focused on stability than survival.

Another reason we resist change is because we don’t have time for it. Most people in an organization spend so much time working on what’s already on their desks. There’s no time to imagine what might greet us when we look up. While disaster looms we often don’t have the power or the bandwidth to do anything about it.

For people who do notice these problems it can be a struggle to get anyone else to notice what they do. A person with a non-dominant identity or little power within an institution may find resistance from above. That obstruction may happen when leaders don’t understand the problem they face. Or they have a solution they like more and the power to do that instead.

We can’t forget about incrementalism. Here the self-preservation instinct rears its head again. Nobody wants to risk getting the problem wrong, under- or overestimating the danger. It may feel safer to prefer incremental change as a way to hedge our bets. Often that change moves too slowly to make a difference. Incrementalism often feels like our last, worst weapon against climate change. It sets fuel efficiency standards on vehicles that pretend we have decades left. It permits oil and gas drilling on the bet that there’s still more profit to be had. It’s slow-walking a response to the fight for a $15 minimum wage when that wage should now be at least $25. That same ignorant pig-headedness is not limited to these major issues. Resistance to change, when change is inevitable, is all around us.

going with the flow

Instead of spending time fighting against the current, try something else.

Accept that change is inevitable. Nobody can predict the future perfectly every time. What’s that they say about best laid plans? No matter how well constructed they are, they’ll never solve for everything. At some point, we’ll need to react in the moment. No one person can predict the future, but everyone gets it right sometimes. There’s power in listening to everyone and acting on that information. We need true collaborative spaces. Honesty and trust is essential to ensure everyone contributes.

Get clear on your goals. Ask yourselves, what do we want this company to be in the future? What values do we need to hold as its leaders? What activities or values can we afford to lose? Which ones are essential? Is it really essential or are we being sentimental about it?

Step outside the echo chamber. Don’t stay insular. Don’t just ask the people you see on the way to lunch. Don’t consult only with other CEOs or with everyone in your circle of peers. People who have a similar mindset or perspective as you likely won’t know what’s coming either. How many times do we read, “No one could have predicted…” about something that was obvious or inevitable?

never mourn an organization

Our jobs are not our identities. The organizations we work for may not be alive, but we are. Organizations employ people. Sometimes they employ a lot of people. That shouldn’t be the only reason they stay in business. Companies that thrive do so in part because they adapt better than the ones that don’t. Organizations that can’t adapt will eventually dissolve. We don’t have to go down with them.

photo of josh martinez

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

i own and operate a consulting practice, Future Emergent.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture.space