How do you navigate the 'permanent whitewater' of career change? Be prepared for inevitable turbulence.
By M.J. Ryan
People who tend to survive catastrophes (such as fire, flood, bombings and kidnappings) accept what’s happening quicker than others and therefore take action faster, according to author Amanda Ripley in “The Unthinkable.” The same is true for job-search success in less obviously dangerous situations. The race goes to the most fleet of foot, those who can calmly say, “OK, that’s over; what’s next?”
Change is inevitable. Organizational consultant Peter Vail calls the world’s increasing interdependence and complexity “permanent whitewater.”
He identifies this term with a time of ongoing uncertainty and turbulence. Experienced rafters know they’re going to get dumped out at some point. The difference between them and the rest of us is that they’re prepared to get bounced out and recover swiftly. They expect the whitewater. And so should you. You’ll save precious energy for coping and learning so you can keep your head above water.
When we resist change, we put ourselves through the emotional wringer.
We go through obstacles such as blaming each other, denying ourselves progression and creating inertia in our lives. Here are a few examples and tips on how to avoid these obstacles yourself:
Recently, I was listening in to a leadership-team conference call for a small business with whom I consult . Sally, the marketing director, said that due to an error, they would not be able to run the ad they wanted. A good adapter, Sally presented two alternatives — an old ad or the new ad with a tweak if it could be done that day to meet the deadline.
Rather than accept the change and figure out the best alternative, the leader kept rehashing the events that led up to the need for this change — making accusations and complaining about not getting what he wanted. His business is in deep financial trouble, yet rather than stay focused on the big picture, he took up almost an hour complaining about a tiny problem. He was stuck doing what people do when they resist change: searching for blame. This wasted time and energy of his whole team. Not to mention the cost in dollars!
We want to keep doing what we’ve always done, regardless of whether it is working or not or whether there are better, faster solutions.
I was reminded of this when a publicist friend begged me to talk to her business partners. “I can’t get them to learn this new on line calendaring tool that has become crucial in our business. They keep doing it the way they’ve always done, but we can’t afford that anymore. They’ve got to move with the times!”
I understand her partners’ reluctance. I don’t want to blog, learn how to do podcasts, network more, do on line marketing, or get a camera for my computer so I can do Skype video conferencing. Yet these are all crucial marketing activities for a professional writer these days. I’ve written for 30 years without doing any of these things, and I don’t want to start now. My brain is perfectly happy doing what it’s always done. After all, it does it so well!
Whoops, danger ahead. None of us, whatever our age, whatever our work, can afford that attitude anymore. The name of the game is relevancy, and the life cycle of relevancy is getting shorter. It used to be that the basics of your education held you in good stead for decades. We can moan and complain about that fact, but if we want to maximize success, we need to accept that reality and get learning.
To be successful, we must get out of our inert safe zone and into the stretch zone. That’s because learning means stretching yourself beyond your current limits and exerting more effort. After all, it takes more work for the brain to do something new.
Rather than seeing safety as a wonderful thing, we need to view it as a warning sign that we’re coasting on past learning and dangerously resisting the inevitable.
I first learned the need for this nimbleness as a young employee at a weekly newspaper working for my mentor Will Glennon. We were understaffed and underfunded; there was always something or someone not working. He was the model of grace as he jumped from fire to fire, providing work arounds and changing on a dime. I watched and adopted his style. Later, he and I founded Conari Press with no capital whatsoever, and we used this capacity to adapt swiftly to build a $6 million company.
Resistance is futile, as the aliens in Grade-B movies like to say. Change is here to stay, and we can’t afford the cost of foot-dragging. In 2006, creativity expert Sir Kenneth Robinson, speaking at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design) stated, “We have no idea of what’s going to happen in the future. No one has a clue about what the world will be like in even five years.” Be prepared to be unprepared.
The author of many best-selling books, M.J. Ryan is a consultant with Professional Thinking Partners, where she specializes in coaching high-performance executives and leads trainings in effective teamwork within corporations, nonprofits and government agencies. Her latest book is "AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn't Ask For." Visit her at www.mj-ryan.com for more support.