Many leaders have a difficult time upgrading themselves and their organizations. This is  because they find it difficult to abandon strategies that have been successful in the past and shift into a new mindset

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Tony Schwartz and Emily Pines--both executives at The Energy Project--this often causes businesses to fall behind. "The complexity of the challenges that organizations face is running far out ahead of the complexity of the thinking required to address them," Schwartz and Pines write. 

Fixed beliefs and assumptions become engrained in leaders' mindsets regarding what will and will not lead to future success. This is encapsulated in the idiom: "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," or, as the authors put it: "When we feel uncomfortable or stressed, we tend to double down on what has worked for us before. Overusing any quality will eventually turn into a liability. Too much prudence congeals into timidity. Overemphasizing practicality stifles imagination. Consistency turns into predictability."

Schwartz and Pines correctly identify the biggest challenge for successful companies today: disruption. Disruption by definition requires new strategies, new approaches, and new behaviors. Think about Blockbuster, Encyclopedia Britannica, or even snail mail. When Netflix, Wikipedia, and email came along with new digital technologies and similar value propositions, the incumbents weren't prepared to compete.

How to Overcome Resistance to Change

Our own inner monologues are to blame for our refusal to try new things. Many see the need to change as binary: if an existing approach is good, then the alternative must be bad. This thinking--alongside our own internal resistance to change, which often pushes us to ride momentum instead of altering course--can be successful only in the short term. Creative destruction (the process where the new replaces the old) comes to all industries, and is the central driving force behind entrepreneurship.

To combat this, Schwarz and Pines suggest balancing the two options, rather than seeing them as diametrically opposed. Instead of seeing your business strategy as a choice between the old and the new, find a way to blend and balance them: "Balance practicality and innovation, boldness and prudence, collaborativeness and self-reliance, agility and consistency--without choosing sides between them."

The authors go on to offer additional suggestions when dealing with innovation:

  • Embrace intermittent discomfort. We all try to avoid pain, but in order to build a muscle you have to subject it to stress. The same is true in business. 
  • Focus first on self-observation. When it comes to revisiting strategy and change, the authors recommend observing your inner monologue around change with curiosity and detachment. By stepping back and gaining perspective, you can make better, less emotionally reactive decisions.
  • Stagger big change. Break down big changes into small, time-limited tests of assumptions instead of adopting them holus-bolus. Noam Wasserman, in his new book Life is a Startup, calls this practice "staggering": turning huge change into a series of manageable assumptions and testing each one.

For example, if I wanted to make a major life change and leave venture capital to become a lawyer, I wouldn't simply wake up one day as a lawyer. I would break down the task into stages and work diligently to move through each stage in turn. 

One of the only constants in life is change. Leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, and small business owners can be assured that change will come regardless of the industry, venture, or technology. So prepare for it, or face the same fate as Blockbuster, Encyclopedia Britannica, and snail mail.

Published on: Oct 31, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.