Bob Dylan was certainly right when he said “times they are a-changin’”— and of course they always will be. Management expert Gary Hamel made a similar observation: “What distinguishes our age from every other is not the world-flattening impact of communications, not the economic ascension of India and China, not the degradation of our climate, and not the resurgence of ancient religious animosities. Rather, it is the frantically accelerating pace of change.”
We see signs of frequent and disruptive change everywhere. Entire industries have been significantly altered right before our eyes. The life expectancy of large companies has shrunk from 70 to 15 years. By 2027, approximately three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be replaced by new firms. Two-thirds of the 50 companies that make Fast Company’s most innovative list are not on the list the following year. Journalist Tom Goodwin has remarked on these and other changes in the economy too: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, has no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.” (TechCrunch, March 3, 2015).
But so many of our business models and approaches seem to be based on a time of stability and predictable events. These models ignore periods of turbulence and upheaval, or worse, think that these times are abnormal and will pass. But they aren’t, and they won’t; and it is time to wake up to this fact. Given that there seems to be two types of companies today—the quick and the dead—the central questions become: Are we changing as fast as the world around us? Are we building for new futures and preparing for uncertainties ahead? These answers can be particularly daunting for an inward-facing profession such as HR. Those on the front-lines—who see the changing needs, requirements, attitudes, and competitive threats in real time—are better able to grasp this reality. It confronts them every day.
HR needs to recalibrate its own capabilities to be successful in this world of upheaval and shifting priorities. It cannot do so with past mindsets and attitudes that favor stability, protection, and excessive process-orientation. We need new wiring and capabilities, and while this is outside some people’s comfort zone, it is exactly what a business—not just an HR leader—should do.
There are three qualities that can help ensure that HR professionals change fast enough and adapt to the future. These qualities must be embedded in HR’s development programs, internship opportunities, practical experiences, and hiring profiles.
- Resilience. It is not enough to be flexible; we all are thrown about and buffeted by external forces. It is what happens next that becomes defining. It is about not being discouraged, dealing with adversity, getting back up, seeing the way forward, persevering, and bouncing back stronger than ever. Resiliency is becoming widely acknowledged as an essential part of the modern toolkit for a variety of professions and situations. For example, it is an essential quality for modern soldiers who face an ever-changing enemy in unfamiliar battlefields.
An excellent recent contribution to the resiliency literature is Angela Duckworth’s best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (Scribner, May 2016). She discusses ways to build passion, perseverance and grit by creating situations in which people encounter new experiences, work on hard projects, practice deliberately, demonstrate positivity and follow through on commitments. Development programs, simulations and case studies can be put in place to promote and hone resiliency as a vital 21st century skill.
- Learning agility. The engine for resilient behavior is learning agility. In a time when the half-life of knowledge, industries and companies continues to shrink; learning is the antidote to obsolescence. Any serious professional must continue to learn, grow and be inquisitive. Carol Dweck has identified two mindsets on intelligence. A “Fixed Mindset” believes that talent is innate and not changeable. A “Growth Mindset,” on the other hand, believes that intelligence can be grown and improved through focused effort and practice. Learning agility goes hand in hand with a Growth Mindset and is a key requirement in a world buffeted by mercurial events. As Eric Hoffer has said, “In times of drastic change, it is the learners that inherit the future.”
- Anticipating change. HR professionals must not just respond to disruptive events, they must anticipate them. HR leaders can help their organizations “see around corners” so that problems are avoided and opportunities seized. We cannot possibly predict how various external factors—such as economic forces, security concerns, consumer tendencies or emerging competitors—will impact the business, but we can prepare for them. The process of thinking through different scenarios enables a more agile and faster response to the future. Scenario planning and environmental scanning are skills that can be further developed with discipline and practice.
Charles Darwin had a message for us as well on change and adaptation. His Origin of Species (1859) rocked the world, changed the scientific picture, and embedded the term “natural selection” into the world’s lexicon. Over the years, however, his work was sometimes popularized to mean “survival of the fittest.” But this meaning is deceiving if the word fittest is determined to mean “the strongest.” The dinosaurs, for example, were the most powerful creatures on earth, but now we only see them in animated movies. It’s not about strength, it is about adapting to changing conditions; and this principle extends beyond species to include companies.
From Dylan to Darwin and now, Peter Drucker, arguably the wisest, most cogent management thinker of our time, it's important to pay attention to eminent artists, scientists, and thinkers who are all telling the same story. The inevitability of change is clear, but as Drucker warned: “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence, it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”