Coping with Change

Sep 16, 1996

I’ve been thinking a lot about change lately, probably because I have been experiencing so much of it so fast. Moves are one type of change that most people find stressful. I know— I have been through two of them in the past month. We recently moved our office to an all-new space in our existing office/retail complex that we had built out to our specifications. And although things went pretty well, and we didn’t need to change our address or phone number, or even put one stick of furniture on a truck, the actual move certainly was disruptive. Especially when you consider that Nynex provided us with only three incoming phone lines, there weren’t any counters to put our printers on, and neither Fred White’s nor my own desk had arrived so we didn’t have a place to sit! Then this past week, I moved my family into a new house as well, after living in the same place— an old Victorian that we completely redid, top to bottom— for more than eight years. We closed on the sale of our old house and the purchase of the new one on the same day. Fortunately, the sellers allowed us to rent from them for five days before closing and that made it all a little easier, but on the day of our move, the movers were two hours late, so that added to the stress. Then on the day of the closing, my attorney showed up 40 minutes late with the cash, while we made small talk with the sellers and tried not to offend them with what we thought about how well they maintained their old place! All of this change is happening while we are growing revenue-wise by 40% or 50% this year, there are new employees to indoctrinate into our culture, we have to figure out how to sell all the new products we have coming out, and we’re trying to keep our systems for everything from accounting to project management to document storage from completely falling apart! As I reflect on my personal experience with change lately, it occurred to me that what we are going through as a company is probably not much different from many of our readers. Here are some of my conclusions: Change is inevitable. It will happen, whether you like it or not. Partners will come and go, office leases will expire, clients will turn over, new people will join your firm, and the old ways of doing business won’t last forever. The first step in being able to deal with change and maintain your sanity is to accept the fact that change is always around the corner, and that nothing stays the same forever. Change is energizing. Sometimes it’s healthy to just throw yourself (and the rest of your organization) into chaos to see what kind of order eventually emerges from it. Changing things creates this chaos. No question that risk-averse principals won’t see the benefit to this kind of thinking, but it’s real nonetheless. Chances are, if you are intelligent, and you work hard (two qualities that A/E and environmental firms fortunately have in abundance), you’ll have a new sense of what’s possible and what can be done if you set your mind to it. Change involves some temporary pain or discomfort. New organization structures are tough to implement. New managers always seem to upset somebody in the organization, if they are going to get anything done. New systems may not give you the same information you relied on in the past. New offices are a hassle to plan and move into. New owners are hard to acclimate. New acquisitions may be tough to integrate. Going from a 98-pound weakling to an Arnold Schwarzenegger clone takes pain. Changing from a mediocre company that performs similarly to all the other firms into a superior company that blows away all of the norms is not going to be easy. No one can anticipate all ramifications associated with change. No amount of planning can eliminate every surprise. Change usually results in some surprises— not to say that all of these surprises are bad. Sometimes things work better than you thought. Sometimes there are hidden benefits to a change that you did not anticipate. Surviving change builds confidence. Think about the people you knew in high school who did a year as a foreign exchange student in another country. Or those who moved around a lot early in their careers and lived in wide variety of different areas in this country. Or more specifically, those who worked in an A/E or environmental firm and survived an acquisition of their firm by another company. All of these people most likely have greater confidence than their peers who never ventured out of their own back yards, those who weren’t forced to learn about other people and other cultures, or those who have only worked in one stable company. Being able to last through change gives confidence that you can do it again and again. Somebody has to spearhead the change. No change will occur unless there is a single person driving it. And the interesting thing is that the person who initiates the change may not be the same one who finishes it. In my own recent house sale, for example, I was the one who has been wanting to move and finally convinced my wife that it was best for our family. But along the way, after our first quick sale of the house fell through, I was ready to pull the plug and go back to the comfort associated with not having strange people trampling through at all hours of the day and night, and my wife took over. Now, she was ready to go, and did what was necessary to keep things together until we got another offer. The point is that if one of us had not been aggressively leading the movement to change (and it didn’t need to be the same one of us), we would have copped out. You are the boss, and you and only you decide how much change you are willing to take on. Whether we are talking about how quickly you want to grow your firm, office, or department; or how many graduate degrees you’ll pursue in your free time; the point is that you are the one who decides where you will stop. I’m of the opinion that too many people stop themselves too early in the development of their firms or too early in their careers due to change-associated discomfort. And the result is that this unwillingness to venture from the comfort zone keeps them from achieving their potential. Not everyone does well with change. Some people can’t deal with change. They fight it at every corner. You have to accept the fact that you may not be able to change these people. They may be stuck in the past. They may lack confidence. They may not see the benefits associated with change. They may not see what bad things could happen if they don’t change. You owe it to your employees and yourself to have the answers to these very typical concerns. Sometimes the symptoms of an inability to deal with change take less than obvious form. In A/E/P and environmental firms, those who can’t deal well with change tend to be married to the past. They long for the good old days. This longing for the certainty and security they may have felt (or think they felt) at one point results in a wide variety of dysfunctional behaviors, including lashing out at their immediate supervisor, poor work ethic, inflexibility, inability to follow instructions, complaints about pay or benefits, and so on. Yet the real issue may simply be discomfort associated with change, and a personal fear that they won’t be able to keep up. No doubt about it— change isn’t easy. As a manager, it can be tempting to try to keep things as they are. But your firm works in an industry that’s changing, and the industry is changing because the world is changing. No one can deny that reality. So get ready for change and press on! Originally published 9/16/1996

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