Managing Change Anxiety: Winding Your Watch in the Eye of the Storm

In today's rapid world of change, there are forces that are designed to exacerbate our stress and cause change anxiety, so here's how to take a breath, wind your watch, and confront those forces head on.

change anxiety

Like our grandparents before us, we are currently experiencing change at such a rapid pace that it is altering the course of the planet.

My grandfather was born in 1894 and died in 1976. During his lifetime he went from riding a horse and buggy to watching a man land on the moon on his personal television. Talk about change!

We’ve been dealing with this kind of exponential change for a long time, and it’s always been unprecedented. So what’s different now? Well, in today’s rapid world of change, we have to deal with an awful lot of forces that are almost designed to exacerbate our stress — forces that our grandparents were fortunate to have avoided.

Social media bombards us with articles from professionals whose business models depend on stoking our change anxiety. Furthermore, industry conferences inform you that you’re seriously behind on whatever adoption curve is at maximum hype level, making you think you’re about to go out of business because of it.

We saw this with cloud yesterday, we’re seeing it with RPA and AI (or IA depending upon whom you ask) today, and there are countless other examples of this kind of industry-built-on-stress hyperbole that you can probably think of.

Beating the Cyclical Industry Hype/Fear 

Perhaps most soul crushing is that feeling that if you just stop for a minute to think and reflect, the experts will label you as entrenched, unwilling to adapt, a dinosaur, or something worse.

I know that I should prove my understanding of this, show that I’m not a dinosaur myself, and write an article about how negotiation is dead, or contracts should be short, or some other form of popular “thought leadership”, but I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to give the same advice that flight instructors have been handing down to student pilots for generations:

When you have an emergency, the first thing you should do is wind your watch!

This is a maxim that pilots are familiar with and is the first rule for how to deal with most emergencies. The idea is that there is almost nothing that will happen when flying an airplane that requires the pilot to just start doing stuff. Instead, the pilot is trained to step back, take a deep breath, assess the situation, plan a course of action, and then execute (usually using a check list).

So, when the world is going to hell, wind your watch. Then act.

The Suitable Response to Sourcing Deals

Most of my career has been spent working with clients on transformational programs, so I tend to see microcosms of the greater stresses that permeate my clients’ professional psyches.

In deal work, one of the first places you see this is when an RFP is being drafted that is supposed to reflect a progressive vision. It is fascinating, exciting, and horrifying at the same time.

It is fascinating and exciting because there really is a lot on the table; it really is game changing. The change is challenging and we may very well be creating some new ways of operating.

Each new relationship — each new deal — has the potential to be the first to solve a problem or exploit some unforeseen opportunity. If you’re in this business and love it, this is what gets you out of bed in the morning.

The horrifying part is the same as the exciting part: there is a lot on the table, and it is game changing. Also, the opportunities and new ways of operating could go either way, and in many cases execution is happening faster than the speed of thought.

Not all projects or programs are created equal, and the purposeful chaos that is being dumped on the humans in this industry is taking its toll. It may be okay to “fail fast” when you’re automating a process or two, but there are times when failing fast just makes you a fast failure, and there are some times when this can have real and dire consequences.

Rooting Out the Cause

If you are in a situation where your team or you are feeling some unusual change anxiety about a transformative program, you may be bothered for reasons that transcend the challenge of the transformation itself.

You may very well be feeling that something is somehow off, not fit for purpose, too rigid, or undisciplined. You also may feel that it’s best not to speak up because a contrarian point of view may not be appreciated.

This is not a new problem, but can be tricky to handle. Luckily, taking a step back, and doing a little basic blocking and tackling can still go a long way. This is particularly true in the current environment where terminology can mean different things to different people.

Learning from Past Deals

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You may recall when innovation was the hot buzz word in outsourcing. Well, one particular deal during this time was supposed to be transformative, was procurement and IT led, and had a respected technology-focused sourcing adviser involved.

The statement that bubbled to the surface on this deal was: “Client will retain innovation”.

Everyone knows what that means, and the team members who wrote it were ready to fight about it to the death!

Clearly the vendor was expected to simply provide commodity-type services, and any of the interesting technological work would be accomplished by an internal team of crackerjack, industry leading technologists, who are masters of their domain and bring incredible technological innovation that an industry-leading vendor could have never even dreamed of.

After a little digging, what it actually meant was the client felt that it’s business is constantly changing and that it has to be responsive to very challenging market demands that require relentless product, delivery and promotional innovation. The client really wanted to be liberated from technology constraints and retain its ability to direct its product development and deployment.

As far as technology was concerned, this client was looking for a partner who could bring new and innovative solutions to bear based on the demanding product innovation cycles noted above. In other words, the actual requirement was for the vendor to be very responsive to quickly changing requirements, and to bring new development methodologies that would enable the tech cycle to be as short or shorter than the product marketing cycle that it was supporting.

This is very different from saying in an RFP that the “client will retain innovation”.

Had that clause been left as written, the RFP would have (1) completely missed an important requirement for the relationship; (2) set up a point of failure by requiring the client to take on a responsibility that it did not intend to take on; (3) used a word that was essentially devoid of meaning in the context it was being used; and (4) prolonged the contracting process, because an issue like this is more difficult to deal with in the contract stage than the RFP stage.

This example came to my attention through a member of the RFP team who had worked with me on another deal and called to ask if I knew what that “innovation” statement meant. It’s a good example of the positive impact of someone who had an uneasy feeling about a requirement and took a minute to wind his watch and reflect.

In today’s environment, you may get called upon to participate in something like moving to a SecDevOps cloud, agile multi-sourced environment and wonder whether that pain in your stomach means that you’re an entrenched, unadaptable dinosaur.

I respectfully submit that before you come to that conclusion, take a minute to wind your watch.

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