Brian Reich, NYC-based author of SHIFT & RESET: STRATEGIES FOR ADDRESSING SERIOUS ISSUES IN A CONNECTED SOCIETY, offers an innovative, yet realistic approach to facing today’s challenges in both the nonprofit and corporate world. Brian also devotes a portion of this book to the importance of hiring returning veterans and the specific, much-needed skill sets they can offer for different positions in the public and private sectors.
Brian Reich is also the author of Media Rules!: Mastering Today’s Technology to Connect With and Keep Your Audience, he teaches at the Graduate School of Communications at Columbia University, contributes as a Fast Company expert, and is the former briefing director for Vice President Al Gore.
MO: Why is it importance to force change?
Brian: Everyone knows change is hard, and messy, and occasionally painful. People resist change at every chance possible. We all fall back into our old habits and patterns when presented with the reality of how challenging doing something new will be. But unless we force ourselves to change, innovative, and experiment with different ways of addressing serious issues, we won’t find the solutions that are needed. Big things won’t get done using the same old ways of operating. We need to create conditions where new ideas can thrive, become contagious, and get executed well. Innovation, and social innovation especially, won’t happen without some real commitment, sacrifice, and hard work. You can commit to being the change you want to be and still see limited results. But if you force change to happen, anything is possible.
MO: What techniques do you suggest companies and individuals utilize to implement change, especially when the transitional process is often messy and met with reluctance?
Brian: To break out of the hold habits and patterns, you need to take a totally different approach – throw out what you know and rebuild it around what you have recognized will drive success. You can’t rely on someone else’s system or an approach that has proven itself in another context. You need to build the operation so that your team can serve your mission in the best ways. This principle holds true for any new, innovative, and successful organization you hear about – in politics, sports, business, media, and more.
It also has to be more than just lip service… you have to teach people how to change, not just tell them its important. You need to constantly evolve and improve your approach, not just issue a directive and expect everything will work out for the best. More specifically:
• Provide guidance. Pick an issue — one or two per year (keep it limited) — and direct all your funding and support to address only those challenges. The more options that people have, the more likely they are to get distracted, spread themselves too thin. There is plenty of activity, and more than enough room for flexibility within a very focused set of issues or actions. Let the creativity flourish within set parameters so that you can be confident everything is working towards the desired outcome at all times.
• Pick your team. While there are plenty of people who have self-identified and committed themselves to your work — and we know that because they’re involved already — truly new ideas and approaches are likely to come from people who aren’t currently entrenched in the sector. Go out and find people (especially people who have never viewed themselves as social entrepreneurs or innovators); draft them if you have to. Compel those people whose interests lie elsewhere apply their expertise and perspectives towards these issues. Don’t let the team define itself.
• Keep pushing. Demand more (and better) solutions. Never be satisfied that an idea has been fully explored until the right voices have been found and the issues addressed. It has become altogether commonplace for successful organizations to fall into set and rigid patterns; to get lazy; to focus on maintaining their work instead of innovating continuously and looking for new solutions. If you let people off the hook, or let the focus and intensity wane, you’ll find it much harder to get them back on track again when you need it.
MO: What kinds of transferrable skills do you think veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan can offer the US job market?
Brian: The men and women of today’s military, particularly those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, have tremendous leadership skills – because their training and service put them in a position to learn lessons that aren’t learned in a class or in formal training inside office walls. The armed forces provide top-notch training and teach discipline and instill values from the moment of enlistment. When deployed, these soldiers have opportunities and experiences beyond most of their civilian peers: they build schools; they train police forces and help establish courts of law; they distribute food aid and help coordinate humanitarian missions; they meet with local leaders and advise lawmakers. They have successfully navigated very tough terrain — multiple deployments overseas, as well as a tough economy here at home — and thus are uniquely prepared for the demands of a constantly changing, highly competitive marketplace. They are more valuable than most realize.
MO: Why are traditional strategies for change no longer working?
Brian: The world today is increasingly defined by global competition, faster flow of information, and greater complexity. There are new models to explore and different players in every discussion. The old models don’t work because the foundation on which they rested in the past has been totally disrupted. Put simply: the game is different; new rules need to be written. In fact, the pace of change has become so rapid that new ways of communicating, educating, engaging, and mobilizing audience are being created every day. This new environment requires organizations to operate differently – and it means that the way resources are applied must be re-considered. The reach and potential that technology offers, and the interest among audiences to become more deeply involved, and more active, than every before, challenges our existing understanding. And until organizations, of all types (and especially those hoping to address serious issues), understand that everything has changed as a result of the impact of technology and the Internet, everything else is window dressing.
MO: You say that ‘Leading an organization or a movement requires skills not taught in school.’ Can you expand on what those skills encompass?
Brian: Clearly, building a successful organization is challenging work. Continually improving and re-making an organization is perhaps more difficult still. The skills that are needed don’t come from a classroom alone for two main reasons: we don’t learn and make sense of the world through structured activities only. Sitting in a classroom, isolated from the context and pressures of our society will allow you to focus and explore options in a safe way, but they won’t give you experience you can apply. Second, we can only teach what we know. It is very difficult to make sense of something that is happening in real-time. But that’s exactly the challenge of operating in the world today. There isn’t always time to look back, check your textbook, confer with a colleague. You have to make decisions and get comfortable with managing your options in real time. Remember, some of the most successful CEOs or leaders of major corporations over the past few decades never completed a formal business education. Their company was founded, literally in some cases, out of their garage. That doesn’t mean education isn’t important, but you also have to recognize that the experience in the field will give you a different set of tools to work with when a challenge is presented.
MO: Do you think that the capacity for large scale change is enhanced by social media and the fact that people are more connected than ever before? How do we harness the power of communication and collaborate in a meaningful way?
Brian: Large-scale change will always be difficult – but in a connected society, we can break complex problems into smaller, more manageable pieces, without losing site of the larger goal. We can access intelligence and experience that wasn’t available before, because we weren’t able to look beyond our immediate environment to ask for help. But being connected doesn’t mean that solutions will simply emerge. Beyond recognizing we live in an exciting and important time, we have to make adjustments to how we operate in order to take advantage of what we now have available to us.
It seems obvious to point out that, at the end of the day, every organization must be good at something. And perhaps it’s just one thing. But an organization that provides a unique service or specializes in an important area can have faith that their excellence affords other organizations the opportunity to do the same. If you have a vision, someone else can address the management needs. When you successfully create a powerful model, others can step in to help address the different challenges that come with scale and adaptation. Organizations can lead; by understanding everything that needs to be done to address a particular issue while making sure that their focus remains firmly on the limited areas where they can have success. When all the different areas of expertise and focused are combined, a Franken-org is born.
Without an appreciation for how the different pieces fit together, and the specific role that one organization can play, measurable progress towards addressing a serious issue on a global level will be very hard to find. Competition becomes commonplace. Attempts at cooperation and collaboration become inefficient. Being part of a truly connected, collaborative effort changes everything — all organizations stay focused and contribute their expertise, and collectively they have the impact that each would be unable to realize on its own. It’s a mindset and a strategic approach. It’s a way of communicating and working that is enabled by the tools we have available today, and supported by the mindset that we have embraced as the internet and technology have changed what we know. All that is missing is our commitment to making it happen.
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