Change When You Want To…

Image thanks to David Levine

One of my favorite business quotes is from an old B-school professor of mine: “Strategy is the art of foreseeing the inevitable and hastening its occurrence.” It’s a paraphrase of a quote on the art of statesmanship by the legendary French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand.

And he should know … de Tallyrand, who lived from 1754 to 1838, survived – in fact, prospered – as France went through a long period of cataclysmic change. He served in the regime of Louis XVI through the French Revolution, then on to become the Foreign Minister for Napoleon I. He continued to serve during the reigns of Louis XVIII, Charles X and Louis-Phillippe.

Certainly a controversial figure throughout his career (cynical manipulator or loyal patriot?), scholars generally agree that while he served no particular regime with absolute conviction, he served the interests of France with complete loyalty.

Whatever one’s opinion, this much is evident: de Tallyrand was clear-eyed and astute regarding the world around him. He saw the world as it was – or would be – and not as he’d like it to be. Better to put energy toward adapting to the inevitable than expending energy in a futile fight resisting it. For today’s managers, there are transformation lessons to be learned from de Tallyrand.

  • Have the courage to develop points of view about how the world, e.g., your company, your industry, global trends that will affect either, really is. Why courage? Because courageous leadership is needed if these views challenge the prevailing conventional wisdom.
  • Honor what got you this far, but don’t get lulled into believing it’s the formula for success in the future.
  • There are corporate agendas and there are personal agendas; and in organizations of all sizes, personal agendas always trump corporate agendas. In any transformation you need to pay particular attention to the personal agendas. of those most impacted by, or threatened by, a change in the business model.
  • People are going to tell you, “We tried to do [fill in the blank], but it didn’t work.” This is their way of saying “We can’t change.” Don’t become immobilized by those old stories of past failures.

The key to minimizing the tumult that strategic transformations entail is this: Don’t wait until there’s really no choice and you’re left with bet-the-farm options, fewer resources, a shorter runway, and an impatient Board that’s increasingly focused on how management is going to respond to eroding results.

As de Tallyrand might have said, you can manage transformation on your terms or have the terms dictated to you. It’s your choice. Either way, change is coming.