General thoughts

On The Illusion Of Change

The Eleatics were an interesting bunch. They were a pre-Socratic school of philosophy founded by a guy called Parmenides in the early fifth century BC in the ancient town of Elea. They debated many things, some of which would blow your mind in terms of metaphysical concepts. One of the most mind-bending conclusions they arrived at was that change was impossible and reality was one and unchanging. Their view was that any form of movement was nothing but an illusion. This may seem like a pretty crazy viewpoint, but it isn’t hard to find a business executive that acts as such.

The very first chapter of my new book Powered By Change is entitled “The Reality of Perpetual Change”. The reason I titled it as such is that I still, to this day, find Eleatics in every corner of the business world. I see leaders who announce grand plans about change to teams of followers, eagerly imagining a brighter future, but eventually realising that the leader was only announcing plans rather than planning to execute anything different. I see proud CEOs showing graphs of static growth, claiming that this is somehow proof that competition isn’t having an effect, meanwhile, the competitive landscape repositions itself and the company falls to pieces. I’ve been in meetings where new ideas have been shot down because the requirement to change is seen as “too hard”. One of the most senior execs of one of the largest brands in the world literally said to me “OK, I know what we should be doing, but let’s concentrate on what I could get voted through the board.” This exec wasn’t accepting change, this exec was wanting nothing to change, other than board approval – even if it meant presenting something that denied any change was needed. Utter madness, and utterly common.

This is why the first chapter is fairly robust in terms of stating facts and offering the reader a stark choice as to whether to respond positively or negatively to change. Powered By Change isn’t just a book title, it’s an option.

My premise is simple when discussing the realities of change:

  1. A greater degree of change is on the way than has occurred in the past.
  2. The rate of ongoing change is going to be a lot faster than we have previously experienced.
  3. And history shows that companies are poor at coping with and responding effectively to change.

Deeper in the chapter I release some eye-wateringly ‘anti-Eleatic’ stats provided by AEI research. I mention the fact that 88% of the companies that were on the Fortune 500 list of the world’s largest corporations in 1965 are not on that list today. I then follow that with an observation that over an even shorter sample period of time, corporate resilience is not much better, with 74% of the Fortune 100 list having disappeared since 1980. But even with hundreds of additional statistics and dozens upon dozens of real-life case studies, why is change still seen as something that a) doesn’t exist, b) won’t impact that person or company or c) will either disappear or gradually lessen?

I think it isn’t about change itself, I think it’s about the mindset about change. The word is emotive isn’t it? Maybe you remember dealing with a colleague but the context changed over time? That wasn’t a good feeling. Change = bad. Maybe there was a business decision you made but then the market shifted, leaving you with egg on your face. Change = bad. Outside of business, maybe you packed for a sunny trip abroad only to find it’s a sub-zero nightmare. Change = bad. To be honest, it’s sometimes hard to get a result where ‘Change = good’.

If we look closer though, every event in your business and personal life that has added to your growth, was because something changed. Every time a successful product launch happened, change took place that glued customers to your P&L. So, it would seem there is evidence that change can be positive.

This is why I give the choice to be Powered By Change or not. You may feel that change is an illusion or an irrelevance, and that’s OK, it’s your choice. You may alternatively feel that change is the most empowering fuelling mechanism you could ever apply to your business or personal life, and that’s OK too, still your choice. There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer…but what there is, are thousands of years of evidence showing the impact of not accepting or not using change, versus accepting and growing from change.

It is this epistemology, this knowledge, that secures my belief that today is the slowest pace of change we’ll ever experience - and how we respond to it, is the single most important factor of success on earth. Sorry Eleatics.