When I first read Nicholas Taleb’s book, Fooled by Randomness I was seriously impressed by Taleb’s analysis of the fallibility of human knowledge. When in Heathrow Airport in 2007 I picked up his new book Blackswan which I read twice, initially on a journey into and out of San Francisco. I was delighted to get a name for our new business model where we were merging with another two companies and enthralled by a rational explanation for the domain blindness and silo based thinking that was so much a part of the many programmes of change that I was involved in at that time. Taleb, in his analysis, regards many scientific discoveries as black swans—"undirected" and “unpredicted”. He gives the rise of the Internet, the personal computer, the First World War, as well as the September 11, 2001 attacks as examples of Black Swan events. Taleb's Black Swan has a central and unique attribute: the high impact. His claim is that almost all consequential events in history come from the unexpected—while humans convince themselves that these events are explainable in hindsight (bias).
In my analysis of change, one of the overriding concerns people have is the impact this will have on them, and the experiences of change that are part of their current physiological profile. I put forward a claim that our current cadre of leaders are to blame for these physiological fear responses and that the fear factor is not just something they create but a manifestation of their own insecurities and blindness to the opportunities that change presents. One of the fascinating insights in working with my good friend Darrell Mann in selling innovation is that leaders love innovation if it is happening elsewhere but not on their patch. Yes I know I generalise, but my core question that I have been grappling with over the past three years is, why does 97% of innovation fail and why does over 80% of change programmes end up in the dust bin of history?
As I evaluate the business environment in which we operate, I note how many leaders are confused as to whether their strategy should be one of retrenchment, investment, or panic. Facing the future is the supreme challenge for today's leaders and our core legacy must be to equip our organisations for that future. We must decide on the strategies that will steer our ships through turbulent waters, whether known or unknown. Dangers, opportunities or black-holes await the fearful and ill prepared. We must build into our organisational DNA a love of change, ambiguity and innovation. We must rid ourselves of the fear and aversion to personal change and uncertainty. We must learn to apply the dynamic of managing the present whilst building the future. We must as leaders track the signals in market trends, the disruptive inflections this allows us to shape or respond to, a willingness to deal with organisational and personal constraints, and model and design an ethos that builds healthy and engaged organisations with a transformational DNA.
I am not for a minute suggesting we can predict the future, the Irish Catholic in me rebels against that notion but what I will be suggesting over the following pages is that fear of change is a constant of now and we have to be able to move towards this fear not away from it.