‘The only constant is change’ – except it’s not
The only constant is change’: that’s a pretty commonplace assertion, maybe in fact treated as more of a ‘truth’ than an assertion. And it does recognise aspects of change that are important and real - in turn prompting areas of good practice in enabling and sustaining effective organisational change.
For example, by highlighting that change is a normal and integral element of BAU, it leads us to recognise the importance of change leadership as a necessary facet of broader leadership. We pay attention, as a result, to building relevant change-related capabilities as part of equipping our leaders – or at least we recognise that doing so would be a good idea. Similarly, by highlighting that change is not going away, that there are few or no respites from change, the issue of our people’s capacity for change is brought into focus. And, so, good change practice addresses that, working with factors such as psychological safety, stress management and resilience that significantly impact on attentional and change capacity.
So far so good, but so far and no further, please. What would it mean if we really believed that nothing is constant but change? Wouldn’t that mean organisations in which nothing except change persisted, with an inevitable lack of coherence. It would mean there were no principles that could act as guardrails within which change would be effected. It would mean no sustained purpose, the continuing achievement of which might drive the need for change. If there’s nothing constant but change, then change becomes the end in itself – and change for change’s sake has never been a good idea.
Maybe I’m just being pedantic (wouldn’t be the first time): maybe we should just recognise that ‘the only constant is change’ is merely a piece of hyperbole, useful in reminding us that change is an organisational norm. We could do that, but there’s value in going beyond that and highlighting some of the things that might persist through change – things that might also be constants. They might include things like the value our organisation seeks to deliver to its customers regardless of the specific products or services it offers; organisational cultural norms; or even elements of strategy that persist. In the last case Mintzberg’s five Ps of strategy are useful – plan or pattern might change while position and perspective stay constant.
And it really is worth identifying those things that are constant through change. Why? Because, as the old hymn (try the Norma Waterson version) suggests, we need, or at least will benefit from, ‘an anchor that will hold in the storms of life’. Change will more easily be embraced if things that matter to us can be held on to, as unchanging, through that change. That’s why we do well when building change narratives to integrate them into overarching narratives about the organisation that will persist beyond the immediate change. It’s why our engagement around change will be more effective if it can appeal to cultural norms (the kind of organisation we are) or organisational purpose that are not changing; why line of sight to something bigger than the change matters.
So, yes, we’ll do well in leading change to recognise that change is a norm, that it’s not going away. But if we lead change believing or acting as if the only constant is change itself, we should expect to find ourselves in trouble.