Would you like the world to stand still for a day or two, so you could catch up and enjoy some stability? Most people want to see a semblance of order and structure in their lives, says Trevor Gay, but we live and work in unstructured organisations where we just don't have that luxury. So how do we cope in such a fast changing world?
'Seeking stability in an unstable world' neatly summarises my view that many managers and staff in organisations want the world to metaphorically 'stand still for a day or two' so they can catch up and enjoy some stability and predictability. But knowledge, information and speed force us to carry on at a faster pace. In other words, many want to see a semblance of order, process and structure but we live and work in unstructured organisations where those facets simply do not exist any more - a fascinating paradox.
My view about coping with the current environment is essentially pragmatic: I believe we must learn to live in the unstable world of unpredictability, bordering on chaos, then rise above it to a state where we welcome, encourage and celebrate change.
Throughout history, people have risen to challenges. The current information technology 'revolution' presents us with another massive challenge. I believe history will record that we are living through something as profound as the agricultural and industrial revolutions.
A few simple anecdotes illustrate the changes.
I am old enough to remember the introduction of the electric (please note electric not electronic) typewriter in the early 70s. As a teenager i was working in a clerical job in my local hospital. The person supervising the typists in our medical records office was a woman approaching retirement. She had been trained and brought up on manual typewriters. She said "these electric typewriters will never replace the manual."
I wonder how she would feel now?
Nowadays, I hardly ever send a letter through the post. Somehow the process of licking an envelope; folding my letter carefully; placing it in an envelope; licking a stamp and then posting it into a box for someone to deliver, seems an almost antiquated process.
When did I last go to my bank? I can now manage my finances from the comfort of home via online banking without reference to another human being. Yet I still remember very well the days when at 3.30 pm on a Friday if you had not got the cash to get you through the weekend then ‘forget it chum’ - the banks were closed till Monday morning. Now if I need cash at 3am I can walk down the road to my nearest cash point and get it.
As a youngster I saw patients lying in hospital beds for days as they recovered from their surgery to remove cataracts. Nowadays it is only a slight exaggeration to say patients can slip away for an hour at lunchtime, during their busy working day to have cataracts removed through laser surgery.
When the NHS Plan was launched in the House of Commons in July 2000 I printed a copy from the web of the speech of Alan Milburn, secretary of state for Health, before he had sat down in the Commons delivering the speech. My mind drifts to the 'old days' of five years previously when - if I was really lucky - I might have seen a hard copy of such a speech - as part of some massive circulation list in the office. In reality I probably would not have seen it at all. The difference? – I am in control of accessing the material.
What does this all mean?
The choices we face are complex and yet simple. One choice is to hope that things will one day return to the rational, logical, ordered and well structured days of the past in organisations. Some will remember those days, when, it seemed, the mechanistic approach worked. There were processes based largely on order and logic, and, if followed, they had a fairly predictable outcome.
A second choice is to embrace the change. This will mean shelving our fond memories and affection for the 'good old days'. It means acknowledging and believing that the current climate provides us an opportunity and not a threat. It is more than a positive mindset, seeing the glass as half full and being an optimist. It is positively using the opportunity that speed of access to information presents us with. Nowadays we can access almost anything we want via search engines on the Web. This is phenomenal power if used wisely and ethically.
So which option do we choose?
The answer will be an individual decision for all of us. Of course, there will be other options. I am not wishing to simplify such a complex issue to choosing one of the two options outlined here. In trying to summarise this paradox, my view is pragmatic. I look around and recognise that this is not 1969 when I started work in a much more predictable, rational, logical and structured organisation called the National Health Service. Over 38 years later the organisation is still called the National Health Service but it has changed dramatically.
The customer is potentially, and in many cases, literally as knowledgeable as the traditional expert. It is simply not helpful to debate whether this is a good or bad thing. It is a fact.
I don't think burying our head in the sand to this change is a helpful position to take. I support the view of embracing the change - turning it into an opportunity and by using the opportunity ethically in all that we do learn to celebrate the change it brings.
I recognise the need to accept and respect all choices of individuals in this debate. The older I get the more uncomfortable I become with words like right, wrong, good and bad.
Accepting difference is the expression that nowadays fits more neatly in my study of leadership, change management and generally how things get done – whether talking about organisational or personal life.
Trevor Gay is an independent leadership and management coach, trainer, consultant and author with a self-confessed obsession for simplicity and liberating front-line staff