Today, Professor Cable describes the pattern of thinking many adults fall into as a groove. “The thing about these grooves is that they can easily become ruts,” he explains. “The brain uses about 20% of our energy, more than any other single organ in the body. So of course, subconsciously we’re always looking for ways to use our brains less, in case we need that energy for something else – like running from a predator.” The downside of this, he believes, is that it makes dealing with change difficult.
For senior business leaders, trying to engineer organisational change can often feel near-impossible. “It’s similar to the feeling you get when you try to write with your non-dominant hand – except you’re also asking a whole group of people to do the same, whilst trying to convince them that it’s actually good for them,” Dan says.
Embracing the grey spaces
Many participants enrol on the Leading Change programme with a clear idea of their ‘change challenge’. Perhaps they want to be more customer-focused, adapt to a new technology or system, or get more comfortable with digital. “I’d say most of them think they’re coming to learn change management”, Professor Cable explains. “They think they’ll leave here with an understanding of the specific tools and processes or the investments they have to make in order to create change. And they will get all that. But perhaps the most important thing we’re doing is helping them reflect on how they personally view change and helping them shift their mindset.”
The programmes uses simulations and serious play exercises, like the Lego activity, to help participants rewire their thinking to be more change-positive. “Rather than leaders feeling anxious about change, we want them to feel comfortable telling their people about a business challenge without telling people a solution they have worked out in advance. They can say they need some help figuring it out – and it’s not expected to work perfectly at first. As we say on the programme, nobody runs before they walk, and nobody walks before they fall.”
Essentially, the programme is designed not just to deal with an organisation’s immediate challenges – but to spark a cultural transformation that enables an organisation to remain relevant, whatever challenges the future holds. Today it could be digital delivery, tomorrow it could be driverless cars. For Professor Cable, embracing this meta-change is the key to lasting success. “We try to model being intrigued by the grey spaces, being curious about ambiguity. This is crucial for leaders, because the way you as a leader respond to change tells your people how they should be responding to change.”
Preparing for a future where re-skilling is the norm
Even for those of us who aren’t currently leading large organisations through periods of change, the programme’s philosophy holds some valuable lessons. Professor Cable says he was inspired by organisational psychologist Adam Grant’s New York Times bestseller Think Again. On his website, Grant writes, “Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.” This is the premise of Think Again, and an idea that encapsulates many of the issues Professor Cable sees his students grappling with. “Ultimately, learning programming or coding or digital marketing is not the important thing – the important thing is being able to forget your assumptions in order to stay relevant.”
As more of us abandon a life of linear career progression in favour of portfolio careers, consisting of shorter stints in different roles, we will all have to learn to embrace change. Professor Cable points out that many of the jobs people are training for today didn’t exist even just five or 10 years ago; in this kind of labour market there really is no other way to remain relevant than accepting that relevancy is not a static state. We must be ready for a life of constant evolution and growth.