No one has personified British author Richard Dawkins’ idea that yesterday’s dangerous idea is “today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché” better than our 35th President, John Kennedy. When President Kennedy took office in January of 1961, the thought of trying to land a man on the moon terrified most rational people. Yet, the President put a stake in the ground, determined that the United States would win the race in space against the Russians and land a man on the moon within ten years. In July of 1969, more than a year shy of the goal, we turned the dangerous idea into reality.
Space exploration quickly turned to orthodoxy as we funded more space exploration and set new and challenging objectives. Missions like Apollo 13 and other mishaps gave us pause and caused us to continue to see space travel as dangerous, but not too many years passed before we started to take launches for granted. I hope they never become clichés, but they have become commonplace because decision makers continually and consistently demanded the U.S. be first, fast, and fantastic.
Organizational change, the double-edged sword, can build a technology giant like Apple, but it can also unleash a backlash or unrest and turbulence. Researcher James O’Toole addressed the emotional side of change when he wrote about “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom,” pointing out that a status quo mindset does more than create a philosophy; it establishes a risk-averse, oppressive dogma that quashes new ideas, novel approaches, and innovation.
Intellectually, business leaders understand they must champion change in order to keep pace, let alone outrun, the competition. Yet, people often feel trapped by their own ideology, acting as though an oppressive regime or organizational structure has been forced on them by an unknown agent. They are not victims. They themselves have created the traps by making the status quo so resistant to change. Trapped by their own behavior, they avoid conversations that would help them learn about the gaps between their intention to change and objective reality.
Where does the balance between honoring the company’s history and embracing the future occur? When does a stake in the ground act as commitment, and when does it tether the warrior to his grave? Successful leaders know that they need to leverage the advantages of change and avoid the pitfalls of getting it wrong. They must serve as agents for change while preserving the best of what should never change. These questions can help in making those determinations:
- What’s the smallest change we’ve made that had the biggest impact? And how can we do something like that again?
- How can we distinguish the baby from the bathwater-to preserve the best and leave the rest?
- What prevents us from making the changes we know will work?
- If no one would know the outcomes, would I lead differently?
Although attributed to many, most believe Winston Churchill pointed out that “Failure is seldom fatal, and success never final-it’s courage that counts.” Getting change right requires courage, but brilliance doesn’t hurt.