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Top Posts of 2021

2021 December 19
by Greg Satell

More than anything else, 2021 seemed like a year-in-waiting. We waited for the vaccine and then we waited for herd immunity to take hold. We waited to go back to work and school and then we waited for the supply chain crisis to pass. Most of all, we waited for things to go back to normal. We’re still waiting.

Yet while we’ve been waiting, things have been changing. We’ve learned how to work and collaborate remotely. Scientists learned that the mRNA molecule had more potential than most thought. We learned that building resilience into our systems was more important than just moving fast and breaking things.

Most of all, we learned that things need to change, that living unsustainably is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable. We simply cannot go on as before. Still, needing to change and accepting change are two very different things, which is probably why my many most popular posts this past year focused on the challenges of overcoming the status quo. Here they are:

Why Change Management Has To Change

When the practice of change management got its start in the early 1980s, the world was very different. Change was almost always directed from the top and was driven by thijngs like entering a new market or launching a new product line. These involved changes in strategic assets, like factories, equipment and real estate.

Yet today change most often involves how people think and act. To drive change forward, we need to change beliefs and habits. When we try to do that, we will always encounter fierce resistance rooted in people’s identity and sense of self. Inevitably, some will try to undermine change in ways that are dishonest, underhanded, and deceptive.

So it’s clear that change management has to change. If you’re trying to fit the change management ideas from the world of the 1980s onto the challenges we face today, you are unlikely to succeed. So it shouldn’t be surprising that transformation failure rates are so high. This article shows how to right the ship.

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These 4 Paradigm Shifts Will Define The Next Decade

The term “paradigm shift” was first coined by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He describes how paradigms have a life cycle. They begin as an insight that succeeds in helping to solve a certain class of problems. As they prove their worth, they gain traction and become standard.

In time, ideas rise to dominance and they are rarely questioned or scrutinized anymore. People use them almost reflexively. Eventually, things change, new classes of problems arise and the old models become less useful, even as they increase in their level of prestige and authority.  That’s what sets the stage for a paradigm shift. “Failure of existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones,” Kuhn wrote.

I think it’s clear we’re in just such a period now. Today, as we experience a period of enormous change, we need to unlearn old models and replace them with new ones. These new models will, to paraphrase George Box, be somewhat wrong, but somewhat useful, at least for a while.

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Change Consultants Recommend You Do These 3 Things. Don’t.

Over the years change consultants have come up with a number of best practices including building a “sense of urgency” about change,” starting off with a “quick, easy win” and constructing stakeholder maps. These strategies are, for the most part, designed to win over critics and make a strong case for change.

Unfortunately, doing each of these things can actually undermine and derail a change effort for a number of reasons explained in this article. The underlying misconception, however, is that persuading people skeptical about change is what you should be doing in the first place. The truth is that if you feel the need to convince anybody, you probably have the wrong change or the wrong people.

Decades of research suggests that you only need a small minority committed to change to reach a tipping point. So you’re much better off empowering people enthusiastic about change to succeed than convincing people who don’t want it that they should. It’s much easier to sell success than to sell an idea.

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The Eerie Parallels Between the 1920s And Today Should Worry Us

To be clear, I’ve always been suspicious of the use of historical analogies. History is incredibly long and filled with events in just about every context imaginable. So it’s not hard to find a historical basis for just about any argument, prediction or insight imaginable.

Still, the parallels between the 1920s and today are just downright eerie. There was a pandemic, rising nativism in response to an immigration surge, rapid technological innovation and even a President that campaigned, and won, on a promise to return the country to normalcy. Not everything fits, but the similarity is undeniable.

Perhaps most of all, the 1920s should drive as a warning. It was a decade of enormous potential. There was an economic boom kicked off by a new industrial revolution. The League of Nations was designed as the first truly global multilateral organization whose mission was to end war. The stage was set for a new and better world order and we squandered it all. We need to do better this time around.

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3 Management Myths That We Desperately Need To Unlearn

Probably the most important thing I learned writing two books is how easy it is to get things wrong. I don’t mean subtle nuances either. As I went through multiple fact checks with my publisher and with primary sources, I found that sometimes I got even basic stuff wrong. It was very humbling, but I was also proud that we caught the mistakes before we went to press (and no major mistakes have been discovered since, phew!).

One thing I noticed with my most egregious errors is that somehow a mistaken notion would take hold and I wouldn’t notice contrary evidence. The mistaken notion would just sit there until it was actively dislodged during the fact checking process. These were, to be sure, honest mistakes. I was trying my best to get the facts right.

So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that so much of what we hear business pundits say in their pursuit of consulting fees has little to no basis in fact or hard evidence. Concepts like the “global village,” “the war for talent” and “engineering” management are either grossly misinterpreted or just plain wrong. Read this article to find out why.

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The 5 Immutable Laws Of Change

Throughout history many have sought to create change and most have failed, but some have succeeded brilliantly. Revolutionaries, corporate turnaround artists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and social visionaries. Starting out with very different challenges, philosophies and personalities, they eventually all arrived at the same principles that allowed them to prevail.

The first time I really understood the power of change, it was almost by accident. I was managing a major news organization in Kyiv, Ukraine when the Orange Revolution broke out. It was one of those moments when the universe seems to reveal a bit of itself to be very different than you thought.

That’s what started the journey that led to my book Cascades. What I found was that, although every situation is unique, there are certain immutable laws that govern change. Learning them won’t guarantee you will succeed, but it will get you one step closer.

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4 Things Companies Need To Build An Innovation Ecosystem

In 1980, a young Harvard Business School professor named Michael Porter published Competitive Strategy, which drove thinking on the subject for the next 30 years. In essence, he argued that you build sustainable competitive advantage by maximizing bargaining power throughout a value chain.

Yet more recently, that kind of single firm level analysis has been called into question and leaders have learned to look more broadly at ecosystems. In fact, a recent report by Accenture Strategy found that because business models are being constantly disrupted, ecosystems have become a “cornerstone” of future growth.”

Today, however, no one can go it alone. Power no longer comes from the top of value chains, but emanates from the center of networks. That means that strategy needs to shift from dominating industries to building collaborative ecosystems. Read this article to find out how.

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The 2020s Will Be An Era Of Atoms, Not Bits

Over the past few decades, innovation has become synonymous with digital technology. Yet even today, information and communication technologies make up only 6% of GDP in advanced countries. Obviously, there is more opportunity to make an impact in the other 94%. In fact, our myopic focus on digital technologies has probably contributed to the productivity slump.

Yet there are emerging technologies that can fill the gap. As we have seen during the pandemic, advances in synthetic biology are very real and significant. Materials science is entering a revolutionary period. Combining artificial intelligence with manufacturing has the potential to unleash a new industrial revolution.

What will be most crucial in this new era will be to build more effective collaboration that transcend traditional domains and organizational types. We need corporations working with startups, government entities and research universities.. We need a new breed of investors that specialize in technical risk instead of market risk.

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4 Things Every Business Leader Should Know (But Most Don’t)

Read through the business press and you’ll find no shortage of simple rules and slogans that supposedly unlock success. We’re told to “innovate or die,” to fight a “war for talent” and to “find our why.” Yet as Philip M. Rosenzweig points out in The Halo Effect, many of these notions break down under more rigorous analysis.

The truth is that leadership is the art of managing the ambiguous, or as Stanley McChrystal has put it, “a complex system of relationships between leaders and followers, in a particular context, that provides meaning to its members.” In other words, things are never simple., but here are some things I wish someone had told me a long time ago. I hope they help.

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So those are my top posts for 2021. Thanks to everybody for all your support. I’m taking the next few weeks off, but will be back on Sunday, January 2nd with my future trend for 2021.

Have a safe and happy New Year!

– Greg

Image: Unsplash


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