This has been a really intense week to be an American, but as a change management professional it has been incredibly interesting. While I have my views on what went on and why we as a country elected who we did, I have tried my best at times to step back and look at this professionally and as I would if I was brought in to analyze the change capacity of our country. The result is some of the best change management planning out there and at the same time some of the worst change reaction possible.
The Best Example of Change Leadership
From a change management perspective how we (mostly) peacefully change leadership every four years is a great example of change done right. It happens at predictable intervals, it is well communicated, a formal transition period is allotted. It looks really good on paper. I was even impressed with the speech that President Obama gave following the election. He said all the things a good leader guiding a change effort should. I personally thought it was one of his best speeches.
The full transcript can be found here https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/11/09/transcript-president-obamas-remarks-on-donald-trumps-election/. But it was this paragraph I was drawn to
“I’ve said before, I think of this job as being a relay runner. You take the baton, you run your best race and hopefully by the time you hand it off, you’re a little further ahead, you’ve made a little progress. And I can say that we’ve done that and I want to make sure that handoff is well executed because ultimately we’re all on the same team.”
Unlike many of us the president goes into his job knowing it will end at one of two points (4 years or 8). And for that reason he has to lead thinking about what comes after him. It is change management from day one to the last day. And it was designed that way. Term limits force us to look forward and beyond ourselves. What if we all did that in our job. What if we all worked towards the goal of knowing someone would come after us and make it different than us and our job was to make it the best for them we could and to make sure that when we handed off continuity wasn’t lost? What would you do different? Would you document more? Would you create better training materials? Would you be less worried about fitting to you and more to the organization? What is stopping you from doing those things now? How can you change your mindset to being to function this way?
The Worst Example of Change Acceptance
For as good as job as I think President Obama, as well as Secretary Clinton and President-Elect Trump, did in crafting the right message after the election, I think we as a country have done a terrible job accepting the change. Across the country there are protests, students and colleges being brought to dysfunction, calls for over throwing the Electoral College vote. What happened? Why aren’t we handling this well?
The first reason is this election broke the cardinal rule of change leadership, no surprises! I think everyone was shocked with the outcome and we’re very unprepared for it. Even those who voted for Donald Trump and were hoping for his victory didn’t believe it could happen. I saw a statistic this morning that on election day 78% of people expected Hillary Clinton to win. I will admit I was in that percentage. I was out of the country at the time and went to bed without even checking the news; it was a done deal in my mind. When I woke up at midnight and saw where the results were at I was dumbfounded and thought I was dreaming. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.
Surprises during change are the worst thing that can happen. They throw everyone off their game and make us reach for the first reaction we can muster. They defeat all the planning and preparation we have done and all the responses we have readied for problems. I look around the country and I feel like we are those parents who had the ultrasound and knew emphatically they were having a girl. We painted the nursery pink, we bought all dresses and frilly things, we picked out a name, we sent out announcements and when we hit the delivery room the doctor announced “it’s a boy”. We knew we were getting a baby, we planned for a baby but this was not the baby we had built all our preparation around and we are all just looking at each other with that “what now” face. We are trying to figure out how we had it so wrong and feel unsure what to do now.
The second reason I believe we are having such a hard time as a nation with this, and this is where some of my personal views will be more obvious because I feel passionate about this, is that we as a collective have dropped our change capacity in the last two decades. In my opinion we have failed an entire generation and are seeing the results this week. While giving every child a ribbon and not allowing scoring in sports events and grading on a curve had good intentions it has left a significant part of our culture without the reality that sometimes things don’t go their way and has not provided them the skills to be ok with that. For many in the 10-30 year old age group this is the first time they have had to face a major loss or change that was not guaranteed to go their way and they are clueless how to process it. The only emotions they can muster are the typical change reactions of denial, fighting back and trying to bargain it away.
It in no way helped them that the media and even our current leadership told them for months it wasn’t possible that Clinton would lose. And worse yet that if she did it would be tragic for our country. We took a generation without the tools to handle an unexpected outcome and primed them to believe that outcome was survivable. As a change initiative worse marketing and preparation could not have occurred. We told the bed time story over and over again of the monster under the bed, we promised that we would protect them from the monster and then are surprised when they see the monster and the reaction is panic, fear and helplessness.
There are going to be many lessons that come out of the 2016 election. I have no doubt it will be student in graduate programs and doctorate theses will be written about it. We will debate how we didn’t see it coming, how we could have been wrong, what lead to it. But my sincere hope is that we also use it as a personal and national lesson on change and how to better help ourselves and future generations adapt to change, regardless of whether it is a change you supported or didn’t.