Dealing with Disruptive Change? Protect the “Core”

Adapted from Russ’ new book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us about Leading Changemore info]

When the country closed down in March 2020, Jill Clark sat at her desk wondering how the Jewish preschool she directed would survive. More than the financial challenge, she worried about the children; kids 2-5 thrive on social interaction. There was no way she and her staff were going to ask them to tune in on Zoom for daily instruction. What to do?

Jill, like all of us, was struggling with disruptive change. For decades, organizational theorists have said that the only constant is change. But today’s leaders know that it’s not just change that they contend with. It’s disruptive change, change that comes suddenly and makes a massive impact on millions of people. For instance, from 2001-2021 our country experienced:

• The 9-11 attacks.
• The Great Recession.
• Extreme weather events related to climate change: In 2020 we had so many major hurricanes that we ran out of names for them!
• The massive social justice movement launched after George Floyd’s murder.
• The @Me Too movement.
• The deep 2020 recession.
• Our hyper-partisan politics, which divide political parties as well as families.

And I haven’t even mentioned the coronavirus pandemic.

We humans aren’t suited for this kind of turmoil. Our brains are wired for predictability and control, and disruption threatens both. At the same time, disruptive change often leads to a surge of innovation. In 2020, numerous drive-in movie theaters that had sat empty for years became sites for weddings, private movie screenings, concerts, art shows and stand-up comedy. Communities which worried about Fourth of July parades that could create a surge in virus infections created “reverse parades;” the bands and floats sat stationery along the side of the parade route while spectators drove very slowly along the street to take it in. A Texas history teacher got in her car and took a 15-day road trip to several historical sites, narrating the history of each location, posting it on her YouTube channel, Instagram, and Twitter accounts so she could interact with her students in real time. And that’s a tiny sample of the remarkable innovations we saw in 2020.

How Can We Manage During Times of Disruptive Change?

There are numerous answers, of course. But here’s a good place to start. Take a tip from the authors of Built to Last, who captured the characteristics of 18 companies that maintained high performance for several decades. One of the characteristics was, “Preserve the core, stimulate progress.” The “core” is the firm’s set of shared beliefs and purpose. It provides a sense of identity, a base of continuity that doesn’t change. At the 3M company, those include collaboration and innovation. At Johnson and Johnson they have a “Credo” that identifies the stakeholders they’re committed to serving, in order of importance. Their consumers are first; interestingly, shareholders come last. And “stimulate progress” acknowledges the fact that in a continually changing and unpredictable environment, the organization must change with it—everything, that is, except its core.

When managing during disruptive times:

1. Preserve the “core,” and
2. Be willing to change everything else.

When disruptive change hits, it’s critical to focus on the organization’s core. It reminds people what’s most important and must be protected. Moreover, it helps meet our brain’s need for predictability and control. But we also need to be innovative on everything else because disruptive change demands flexibility. Perhaps ironically, reaffirming the core makes it easier for people to be creative in a changing world: it’s much easier to be adaptable when you know what you’re adapting from.

During the pandemic, drive-in theater owners maintained their core purpose—providing a way for people to be entertained together, separately—and found new ways to use its purpose to help people starved for social contacts. The history teacher protected her core purpose—bringing history alive for her students—as did local communities planning for July 4th—celebrating our nation’s independence together—in imaginative ways they never would have considered during “normal” times.

Back to Jill Clark and her dilemma: how could she keep her preschool running safely during the pandemic? In a webinar she learned about “forest schools,” which use the outdoors to help kids learn through exploration and discovery. There are some structured classes, but most of the time is spent learning holistically in the natural environment. This was a safe way to help kids learn together, which would protect her school’s core. But it required major changes in just about everything else: what would the parents and teachers say? Where to hold it? What training would be needed?

Jill started by consulting with the teachers. They had dreamed about integrating the
outdoors into their curriculum, so this was a great our opportunity. They were intrigued, but also nervous. It was a huge change, and some were in their 50s. Then she met with parents.

“They were shocked!” she recalled. But as she described it parents got on board, and many helped design it. The staff organized kids into multi-age pods, keeping kids from the same families together. They worked out safety protocols, found a camp that wasn’t being used during the school year, and had the teachers attend a training program on the forest school model. Within two months the school was up and running. Here’s part of the letter Jill sent the parents as they and the teachers planned the new school program together:

“We want to be safe, we want to support each other, and we want what’s best for our children. We know we will not bounce back to how we operated in the past, but instead we will “bounce forward” to a new reality. We will partner in a way that we can be together, use new safety protocols, and imagine a new school focusing on developmental growth while emphasizing Jewish values and practice through a nurturing and stimulating environment.”

The forest school opened in the summer of 2020 and has been a resounding success. Jill’s story demonstrates the power of preserving the core and adapting on everything else when dealing with disruptive change.

For more on forest schools:

[To purchase this book]

The Agility That Governments Need for a Disruptive Age

Public-sector organizations aren’t designed for it, but some are finding ways to make it part of their culture.

It’s no secret that the environment affecting public and private organizations is becoming extraordinarily turbulent. Change is not only occurring more quickly, it’s also increasingly unpredictable and disruptive. And most organizations aren’t designed to adapt quickly and intelligently.

When large corporations don’t see disruptive change coming, it can be devastating for their bottom line (consider the Big 3 automakers and the challenges posed by foreign competition). In other cases, it can threaten the very existence of companies with long, proud histories. Kodak’s downfall was precipitated by its difficulty in transitioning to digital technology. (Ironically, It was a Kodak engineer who created the first digital camera in 1975. Management’s reaction was, “That’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it!” In 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy.)

For public agencies that don’t have the agility to adapt to major change, the implications are different. They’re more likely to lose reputation, credibility and relationships with key stakeholders. In the 1980s and ’90s, public schools, social services and public-housing agencies were slow to respond to the public’s frustration with programs perceived as ineffective. One of the results: major changes mandated by elected officials, some of which (such as the federal No Child Left Behind education law) seemed to create more problems than they solved.

It’s no surprise that public agencies are often slow to adapt. That’s what our Constitution’s framers wanted. Their overriding goal was to avoid the tyranny of another king. Checks and balances, and the division of power between the federal and state governments, became primary tools for achieving that goal. In that sense, their system has been a brilliant success. But it came at a great cost. Today, we’re chasing fast-moving 21st-century problems using snail’s-pace 18th-century models.

Here’s the good news: A number of public agencies are finding creative ways to become more agile in the face of disruptive change. Here are four approaches:

1. Dedicated units that identify emerging challenges and develop innovative responses: One example is a “bimodal information-technology organization,” which combines two IT units with very different objectives and cultures. The Mode 1 unit is focused on efficiency and stability; it manages ongoing IT operations. The (much smaller) Mode 2 unit deals with innovation and change; it develops creative approaches to emerging problems and helps the Mode 1 staff learn how to implement those approaches. Boston’s celebrated and widely replicated Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics has been a pathbreaking Mode 2 unit. And the spread of dedicated innovation units and data-analysis teams in recent years has brought new agility to city governments.

2. The use of crowdsourcing to quickly find creative solutions to emerging issues: In 2011, the city of Mesa, Ariz., created “iMesa,” a crowdsourcing platform to engage its residents in their local government and its services. In the five years after iMesa’s launch, more than 400 ideas were submitted and 46 were selected and implemented, including two urban community gardens, a downtown “hacker space,” a collaborative workspace called “Thinkspot” and a new 140-acre park. (The iMesa platform is currently offline, with “iMesa 2.0” in the works.) At the federal level, leverages crowdsourcing by enabling agencies to describe technical, scientific and other problems and allowing anyone (in government or out) to propose solutions. Agencies give cash prizes to competition winners.

3. Collaborative networks and task forces that join organizations with similar missions: These efforts create their own identity and often can respond creatively and quickly to sudden opportunities — or threats. Joint terrorism task forces, for example, pool the skills and knowledge of law-enforcement and intelligence personnel from all three levels of government. They develop the trust needed to share information and work as one team, responding quickly to break up terrorist cells and prevent attacks.

4. An agile culture across an entire organization: When Bill Leighty took over the Virginia Retirement System in 1995, it was badly in need of a transformation. It had silos within silos. The mantra was, “This is how we do things, we can’t change.” Leighty’s initiatives included a “dumb rules” contest (to identify and eliminate those that made no sense); cross-functional teams empowered to implement major process changes; employee road trips to learn what key stakeholders needed; and a leadership team that employed “managing by wandering around.” These steps created a vibrant and agile culture in the agency, one that continues to adapt to change today.

The first three of these approaches are much easier to implement; they don’t disrupt an organization’s culture. The fourth — making the entire organization more agile — is far harder. It requires changes in how people are hired, trained and evaluated; new skillsets and attitudes; the ability to sense emerging changes; and a special kind of leadership. What approach will you and your colleagues take to develop the agility needed for these disruptive times?