Dealing with Disruptive Change? Protect the “Core”

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: https://www.forestschools.com/pages/what-is-forest-school-an-introduction

[This blog is adapted from Russ’ forthcoming book: Loss and Discovery: What the Torah Can Teach Us About Leading Change.]

Innovation and Government’s Fear of Failure

When it comes to trying something new in the public sector, we’re especially averse to risk. But there are ways to gain support for these kinds of initiatives.

“Why can’t government be run like a business?” How often have we heard that question? In my mind, many government functions should be run in a business-like fashion; help-desk units, customer-service offices, financial transactions and dozens of other government activities should seek out and adopt the best private-sector practices. But many Americans really don’t want government to act like a business if that means investing their tax dollars in innovative (and thus risky) programs.

Any experienced entrepreneur knows that the process of innovation involves trial and error, and often failure. Think of your favorite high-tech companies. Many of them — Apple, Twitter and PayPal, among others — began with failures. Indeed, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have a mantra: “Fail fast, fail often.” They know that you rarely get it right the first time. Develop the product, get the “beta version” in the hands of some users, learn what doesn’t work, fix it and repeat the process until you have a winner.

While most Americans are delighted to use the amazing products that survive this process, we are ambivalent at best about the risks of innovation in the public sector. Take Solyndra, a clean-energy startup that received over $500 million in federal loan guarantees and left taxpayers holding the bag when it went bust in 2011. Politicians and many other Americans were outraged, and it became an issue in the 2012 presidential campaign. Yet when the signs of a resurgence in clean-tech companies became apparent in 2013, few in the media bothered to cover it.

So it’s easy to understand why so many elected officials and public managers are risk-averse when it comes to innovation. The risk/reward ratio just isn’t in their favor. Except … except that Americans are also extremely proud of a host of innovations that came directly from government — things like land-grant universities, the Interstate Highway System, the technology underlying the Internet, drugs to treat a host of ailments, effective law-enforcement approaches such as “broken-windows” policing and CompStat, and hundreds of products developed from NASA research, such as safety grooving on our highways, aircraft de-icing systems and cordless phones.

Each of these were innovations, none of them were guaranteed to work, and all of them cost considerable money to develop. Now there is no constituency to eliminate any of them. But today, when government officials announce an effort to do something new and unproven, powerful constituencies emerge to argue against it.

What to do? How can public-sector leaders overcome risk aversion and gain support for their innovative projects? Here are some strategies to consider:

“Sell” the problem. “The cost is high, other (traditional) approaches fell short. Avoiding the problem is irresponsible.”

Manage expectations. Don’t promise the world. Call it a pilot, start small, focus on learning.

Be realistic about risk. Describe where this approach has been tried, and the results.

Partner wisely. If working with a private firm is appropriate to the task, find a respected company that has experience with the approach.

Develop a constituency. Seek backing from well-respected individuals in the community who have no self-interest in the program and believe it’s a legitimate role for government.

Compare what you want to do with other programs: The U.S. government, for example, has been funding cancer research since the late 1960s. We haven’t found the cure, but the need is huge and the public supports ongoing research.

Play to pride: “This is America. We don’t back away from the tough ones. We’re a can-do people.”

And perhaps the most important strategy is patience. Take the long view. It may take years to get the needed support to launch an initiative, guide it through the inevitable failures and setbacks, and finally see results. That’s a cost innovators learn to pay. And it’s often well worth it.

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