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Every textbook on organizational change has as a central tenet the idea of “resistance to change.” The premise is that people have a predisposition to resist change and it is the work of leaders and change agents to overcome this resistance. Unfortunately, this thinking has itself become a major obstacle to transforming organizations and it’s time to completely rethink our approach.

Kurt Lewin, the social psychology pioneer, first came up with the idea of resistance to change. For Lewin, however, resistance wasn’t specific to individuals. It was a broader, systemic phenomenon. Resistance to change could result from anything that impeded the change, including misaligned work processes, organizational structure, and/or rewards and recognition. Since Lewin first proposed the idea of resistance to change, it has been pared down to refer specifically to individuals’ psychological state.

At the same time, “resistance to change” has become an excuse to ignore employees’ concerns. If I, as a leader, can label your response ‘resistance,’ then I can largely disregard it. The problem shifts from the change I’m proposing to those who disagree with it. How convenient is that?

This the problem is that this mindset undermines change efforts for several reasons:

1. When employees feel their concerns are not given consideration, it ironically creates the very resistance organizations seek to overcome. Imagine if every time you raised a question or concern you were told your behavior was “resistant.” You would likely get resistant pretty darn quickly.

2. Leaders’ decision-making suffers. Employees, particularly those who must modify how they work for the change to succeed, are often well positioned to comment on the change. They have good ideas for how to improve on it and knowledge about what might go wrong. By assuming their feedback stems from resistance, leaders miss out on the chance to inform and improve the change.

3. Leaders lose the opportunity to build employee buy-in. When we take employees’ concerns and suggestions seriously and modify our plans accordingly, we generate employee ownership. In short, people own what they co-create. They are much more likely to alter their behavior in accordance with the change when they see their own perspective reflected in it.

So, in short, the best way to overcome resistance to change is to put the concept itself to bed. Alternatively, adopt the less combative, and more inclusive term ‘response to change.’ Instead of overcoming employees questions, concerns, goals, etc., try to incorporate them. This is not to suggest that organizations are democracies or that change processes should include everyone. But, while fewer is faster, it is not always better, particularly when transforming organizations.
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Advances in digital technologies (e.g. social, mobile, cloud, big data, etc.) are dramatically improving how businesses operate.  MIT’s Center for Digital Business purports that digitally transformed businesses are 26% more profitable than their peers.  According to MIT, these digital organizations do more than simply invest in digital technologies, however.  They also invest in the leadership capabilities necessary for digital transformation.

Digital leadership can’t be delegated to a consultant, a tech-savvy board member or even Chief Digital Officer. CEO’s themselves must lead digital transformation.  However, most CEO progressed through the ranks long before the term ‘digital’ even entered the business lexicon.  How can these executives get up to speed?  Here are 5 simply ideas.

1. Admit you Don’t Know

It’s tough to admit you don’t know, particularly for executives who are expected to always have an answer.  In fact, research shows that the smartest people often have the toughest time learning because their identity is based on the fact that they’re the expert. 

But digital technologies are new to all of us. Be vulnerable.  Ask “What’s the Internet of things?” and “What’s the difference between social media and social networking.” After all, in the words of Socrates, “The only true wisdom is in admitting you know nothing.”

2. Reverse Mentor

CEOs are often involved in mentoring relationships.  Typically, though, they’re the ones sharing their insight. Conversely, in reverse mentoring, it’s the CEO who is doing the learning.  He or she is mentored by younger, more technically-savvy employee.  Jack Welch used the strategy at GE when he asked 500 of his most senior executives to learn how to use the Internet from their more junior colleagues.  Subsequently, multiple companies, including Ogilvy & Mather, Hewlett Packard, and Cisco Systems have all employed reverse mentoring.

3. Use Social Media

Although CEOs use of social media is on the rise, most still use the digital tool less than one hour per week. This is unfortunate as social media is a great way for CEOs to interact with investors, customers and employees while learning about digital technologies.  Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, for example, caused the company’s stock to rise 6% when he posted that monthly online viewing had exceeded 1 billion hours. What’s more, research indicates that CEO’s use of social media makes their employees feel inspired and technologically advanced. So, if you haven’t already, create a social networking account, post a YouTube video, or start an external blog.

4. Embark on a Digital Learning Journey

Too often C-suites suffer from ‘group think.’ CEOs and their executives continually reinforce the same ways of thinking and reject new ideas as not invented here.  A great way to combat this tendency is through a learning journey.  In a learning journey executives leave their traditional environment and tour different contexts to experience new perspectives and fresh ideas.

Learning journeys are a valuable way to learn about how other companies are using digital technologies.  Visit customers, suppliers, or peer companies to see have they use digital to interact with the marketplace, accelerate business processes, and improve decision making and employee collaboration.

5. Host a Digital Disruption Summit

Digital technologies will ultimately transform every industry. At last year’s CEO2CEO Digital Transformation Summit, for example, experts suggested that the introduction of virtual reality could reduce air travel by as much as 30%. 

Conduct a Digital Disruption Summit to consider how digital might disrupt your industry.  Bring together subject matter experts to share their perspective on digital transformation, identify the opportunities and threats to your business, and prioritize areas for further exploration.

Like the transformation from steam to electricity, digital is a disruptive force that will ultimately change how every business operates.  CEOs owe it to themselves, their employees, and their investors to get smart about digital so they can lead the way rather than get left behind. The time to start learning is now.  Never have John F. Kennedy’s famous words been more true: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

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