Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Organisational change,  Personal Reflections,  Purpose

An island in an ocean full of change

Photo of Tiree and Coll, islands in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland, in a deep turquoise sea
Tiree and Coll, Inner Hebrides, Scotland – Islands in an ocean full of change.
Photo credit Maramedia

There’s a George Ezra song, Pretty Shining People, that was released in March 2019, the same month my book was published, and, of course, several months before we had even heard of Covid 19. In the song, Ezra has his character sing:

Man, help me out. I fear I’m on an island on an ocean full of change.
Can’t bring myself to dive in to an ocean full of change.
Am I losing touch?
Am I losing touch now?

And then, in the lyrics, his friend Sam replies:

Why, why, what a terrible time to be alive
if you’re prone to overthinking ….

As earworms go, it’s catchy, and as a pithy statement of the state of mind of many of us over the past year, it’s probably pretty spot on.

Two years on, as I look back at March 2019 me, with my pretty shining book about pretty shining change, my feelings are a cocktail of compassion, wry amusement and, in truth, probably a little bit of disbelief at my innocence and naivety. A pre-Covid book about change risks being a white elephant, surely? Mildly interesting for its quirkiness, slightly embarrassing, and not at all useful? Am I losing touch? Am I losing touch now?

I’ve written barely anything in this space for the past year – partly due to having been completely consumed, like almost all of us, in simply doing the doing; partly due to most certainly being prone to a bit of George Ezra’s overthinking; but mostly due to being acutely aware of the imperative, above all, to watch closely, listen deeply, and learn humbly and carefully.

Revisiting my book now, and reflecting on the ideas it espouses, I thought it would be interesting to share some thoughts on where I think it still holds water, and where I now think differently in the light of all we’ve been through. Which bits make me squirm or laugh out loud? What would I put a red pen through? What’s missing? And which bits would I circle and underline as spot on?

Throughout March, I hope to unpack the ideas in the book afresh, in the light of all the learnings of the past year – and then to try to distil and offer lightly some practical and actionable suggestions about how, as leaders and fellow travellers, we might best tackle this ocean full of change together. I hope this can be a conversation – a place where we can all learn together. I’d love to hear your stories, experiences and ideas.

Overall – spoiler alert! – my sense is that the fundamental ideas in the book are sound. Change presents both threats and opportunities for individuals and businesses across a number of dimensions and, led well and with clear purpose can be generative and life-giving. BUT – the book is light on two critical components. These two elements are at the heart of the various adjustments to my original thinking that I’m going to propose over the next couple of weeks. 

First, the book assumes much too much about where the locus of control is. The central case study – a merger – was a change that was initiated by a group of leaders. It was boundaried and, for all that the book does address the need to be agile and emergent, relatively predictable and, therefore, plannable. The most profound changes that we have experienced over the past year have been triggered by events beyond our direct control, and change of this nature brings with it challenges (and opportunities) of a different nuance and texture. This puts our capacity for agility and evolution right up to the top of the critical list, and also means that we need to approach finding and using our agency and influence in a different way. 

Secondly, the book doesn’t go nearly far enough in talking about what leading change really demands of leaders. The role of leaders as space holders, sense makers and hope bearers is absolutely critical. The whole-heartedness and authenticity that the book advocates for isn’t just a nice thing that leaders can shrug on like a cashmere cloak – it is profoundly demanding at a deep heart level. It requires huge amounts of vulnerability, courage and kindness. It is costly and messy and scary, and we should talk about that in a no holds barred way together.

Hey, pretty shining people, we’re alright together. I look forward to diving in this ocean full of change with you all.