What is fear of change costing your company?

29.11.2013 James Wall

In an ever changing business environment, fear of the unknown is commonplace. There are plenty of scenarios that pose a danger to your operations. How you and your organisation react to these scenarios is a principal factor in your success.

Fear can be a positive or negative influence, depending on how it's channelled. On one side it is reasonable to fear losing what you have already worked so hard to accumulate. This fear can manifest in resistance to embracing sudden or large scale change, preferring a cautious approach to growth. While this is a perfectly acceptable approach to risk management, it can leave you closed off to new ideas that could significantly benefit your company. In an evolving market, the apparently healthy status quo can be turned on its head in a very short time. Just look at the game changer in the smart-phone market from Blackberry/Nokia to Apple/Samsung.

On the other side, fear can be used for good.  Fear is your body’s reaction to prepare you for dealing with new situations.  Ask any entertainer, even one with years of experience, and they will tell you that anxiety precedes any performance, sometimes manifesting weeks or months before the event.  They harness this fear in a positive way, practising day after day, night after night until they and their performance become one. In a business context, fear can mean that what you are about to do or say will break new ground, unlock a new market or radically transform your business. A little fear heightens your senses and allows you to perform in previously unknown situations. Seeking to avoid feeling fear may prevent you from fulfilling your potential or lose a key competitive advantage.

Fear aversion can inhibit a business in many ways.  Clearly the CEO of an organisation needs to harness fear to manage company performance effectively. But for greater effectiveness, the same attitude should prevail at every level in the company. This can be extremely confronting for those whose job description is largely about the efficiency of maintaining the status quo. For them change may appear destabilising, and hence can be a scary thing. Your company’s new initiative could be the very thing they are afraid of!  Purchasing managers who fear change can be reluctant to change suppliers even when it could save you millions.  Receptionists who fear a rebuke for putting through a sales call could be applying a blanket refusal to external offers, even when the person on the other end of the line has exactly what you need to survive and flourish. Letting fear run unchecked through the organisation can stifle opportunities for growth and prosperity.

In his widely acclaimed books on the comparative basis of success for some of the world’s largest companies, Jim Collins and co-authors found the following common factors delineated history’s winners and losers. Winners start by building a culture that values innovation from whatever angle it approaches. They encourage staff to look for ways to get more out of their current operations. Your success could mean incorporating lessons learned from studying how something is done well in another industry. It could simply mean empowering those around you to listen carefully for the underlying value in any given scenario. Everyone must respect the value of change as the only means to keep their job into the future. No-one would accuse the founders of Apple, Samsung or Google of harbouring a fear of change yet look at the job stability they have created. Bill Gates famously quoted "only the paranoid survive". This was a clarion call to beware of the status quo. Change is what drives innovation and competitive advantage.

Turning such theory of positive fear management into workable practice is then the challenge. How do you identify the change that will benefit you most and hurt you the least? If a new proposition sounds revolutionary then it can be hard to size it up against your current expectations or understanding. Again, the research backing Jim Collins’ books shows the way - a staged approach to developing opportunities generates the most value for the lowest risk. The idea is that your organisation can only afford to shoot a small number of cannonballs but a large number of bullets in the quest for growth.  Bullets are, in the eyes of the organisation, low cost, low risk and low distraction tests that are designed to allow you to test the water to determine the best course of approach. They add that low risk doesn’t mean high probability of success, rather that the consequences of a stray shot are low. Similarly they indicate that low organisational distraction may be a very large distraction for one or two people. Spend a few bullets on determining whether new propositions could actually deliver the benefit they promise and when you find one, follow up with a cannonball in that direction quickly.

Clearly negative unchecked fear can cause widely ranging detriment to an enterprise, while used wisely, fear can keep organisations agile and better equipped to prosper in this increasingly uncertain world. So the next time opportunity comes knocking, offering you something innovative for your business, don’t be afraid to spend a few bullets right there and then to see where it could take you. Applying appropriate change management strategies like ‘bullets and cannonballs’ can be an effective part of your strategy to stay competitive in a continually changing world, without it keeping you up at night.


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