Back in 1998 management guru Peter Drucker suggested that the capability to operate productively when change is the norm would be critical in the 21st century. Much has been said of late on this issue of managing change when change is the norm, including articles in the Harvard Business Review and from McKinsey.

There are big differences in approach and execution between, on the one hand, bringing about a change and making it stick and, on the other, embedding into an organization the capability to grow in a business environment where change is constant. The first attempts to bring about a single change in an organization that is sluggish and resistant. The second is about developing within an organization a comfort with ongoing change and the ability to leverage that comfort for its own ends. The suggestion from Drucker and all those that have commented since on this subject is that this ‘agile and preemptive organization’ is the future–a place where a change management program, at least as we use that term today, is not necessary.

There are challenging aspects in attempting to change an operation to an agile and preemptive organization. Many conventional values and beliefs about what is, or is not, best practice must change. These two bear mention: The underlying acceptance of hiding or burying bad news and/or spinning accountability to avoid blame must be seen as entirely unacceptable, even if things ultimately turn out for the best. Defensiveness and avoidance of conflict are both attributes that are central to many lawyers’ work style. The logical consequences of those attributes are self-and-other deceiving and justifying behavior, and in the old paradigm often produced a negative result—blind spots in client service, lack of responsiveness to colleague and client feedback, and ultimately exposure to malpractice claims. These behaviors now must be seen as a greater sin than not achieving expected base-line performance. Although frustrating to senior management in stable times, this behavior can have a disastrous impact in times of turbulence. This change is very difficult to bring about in real terms, and the solution is not just a no-blame culture, because people justify and deceive not just to avoid blame.

Another example relates to the conventional view of planning. Making long term plans in times of change is forecasting in fog. Visions are fine as long as they remain visions. The kind of planning that is now required is the type that adapts, flexes and is capable of responding to new opportunities on a continual basis. The fact that only 12% of strategies are ever executed may help in a perverse way, but this change requires a whole new attitude to feedback and accountability.

Peter Senge, author of The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, also contends that in a rapid-fire, information-driven, technology-powered world, success is contingent on our individual and corporate abilities to adjust, adapt and learn. The organization, therefore, must incorporate processes of reflection and evaluation into its organizational systems, he says. Leaders must commit to their own personal learning as well as fostering an environment of learning in their organizations. We lawyers are often on a “drive to closure” escalator that makes it hard to step aside and undertake that sort of reflection.

Chris Argyris, emeritus professor at the Harvard Business School, advocates "double-loop learning." He takes the position that most people define learning too narrowly as mere "problem solving," so they focus on identifying and correcting errors in the external environment.  If learning is to persist, managers and employees must also look inward to reflect critically on their own behavior, he says, identifying the ways they often inadvertently contribute to the organization’s problems, and then change how they act. In particular, they must learn how the very way they go about defining and solving problems can be a source of problems in its own right.

There is much of this accommodation to a new constant-change climate that falls into what is essentially an emotional category—how to appeal to and acclimate people who are not by their natures or histories comfortable with change. For example, lawyers are notoriously risk-resistant. Change is therefore anathema because it is by definition taking a risk. How do we effect a change in so fundamental a trait? A trait that is useful when advising our clients yet perilous if allowed to shape our practices? And not only must our approach understand and appeal to our deepest inclinations but it also demands that we put into place more objective, operational changes in the shape of a whole new set of specific working practices.

The problem is that so much of the solution to achieving this new business model of accommodating, no, even encouraging and celebrating, change will not be found in our practices of the past. 

It is a brave new world–one which we would prefer to avoid.  But can we afford to?