Thinking Aloud

Price of plenty: How past success slows present change

What's needed is critical mass brave enough to take risks, driven to succeed in age of disruption

As a journalist in a media industry hit hard by disruption, I have not exactly rushed to embrace change.

But recent events have forced open my eyes not just to the urgent need for news organisations to transform themselves, but to help their employees through the process.

A friend from the training sector who has helped firms undergoing major change said for those affected, it can feel like they are going through the stages of grief : reject change as they see no need for it; resist change as it is unsettling and difficult; being open to change but confused as to what it means for them; being ready to embrace change and keen to help lead it.

Picking up on that train of thought, another friend from the finance sector - who has experienced far more disruption in her career than I have - observed that while companies are quite good at equipping people with the hard skills they need for transformation, most do not pay enough attention to the soft skills.

I think she is right. By soft skills, I mean the skills that have as their focus not tasks but people.

Why do soft skills matter? Because a large part of the work in leading change is persuading people of the need to leave behind a status quo they find comfortable and comforting, so as to move somewhere strange and unfamiliar, and more often than not make sacrifices along the way as well.

ST ILLUSTRATION: CHOY

Professor John Kotter of Harvard Business School, who has studied organisational change for decades, uses a fable to illustrate the challenge of change and how to overcome it.

Once upon a time, or so the story goes, there was a colony of penguins living in the Antarctic. They enjoyed a comfortable life; the only problem was their iceberg was melting.

The cracks in the giant hunk of ice that had been their home for generations were, however, underwater and unnoticed by everyone - everyone except Fred, a loner who liked to watch the wind and the sky and who had noticed a change in the climate.

He went on deep dives to examine the state of their iceberg under the water surface and was alarmed by what he saw.

The story then goes on to describe the huge effort to persuade other penguins in the colony of the urgent need to change - fast!

Fred turned first to take-charge Alice who helped him get a hearing with the colony's council of elders.

Not all the elders believed Fred, so they put together a separate smaller group to lead the change.

Wise Louis built this disparate group into a team, which then worked out a vision for a new nomadic way of life for the colony, where the penguins would no longer become attached to any one iceberg but be ready to move to a better, safer home when needed.

They then communicated the vision to the rest of the colony, neutralised naysayers like a penguin named NoNo and empowered other penguins to help bring change about.

To be honest, there are days when I am pessimistic and worry that Singapore Inc will not make it. So many of us seem to have grown so comfortable with the way things are. We have no desire to leave our iceberg, even though there are signs it is melting. But on good days, I am optimistic. I recall inspiring stories of corporate turnaround - GE, Apple, Nissan and Lego, to name a few.

Since this is a fable, it has a happy ending in which the penguins not only move to a bigger, better iceberg, but also retool their culture so as to become more open and ready to adapt to future change.

The moral of the story? Big change does not happen easily - not in businesses, not in school systems, not in nations.

"Even if an objective observer can clearly see that costs are too high, or products are not good enough, or shifting customer requirements are not being adequately addressed, needed change can still stall because of inwardly focused cultures, paralysing bureaucracy, parochial politics, a low level of trust, lack of teamwork, arrogant attitudes, a lack of leadership in middle management, and the general human fear of the unknown," Prof Kotter writes in his book Leading Change.

"To be effective, a method designed to alter strategies, re-engineer processes or improve quality must address these barriers and address them well."

What is also telling is Prof Kotter's diagnosis that change often fails because of a lack of leadership. That in turn is likely due to past success, which breeds a corporate culture that prizes continuity and nurtures managers but not leaders.

"Unfortunately for us today, this emphasis on management has often been institutionalised in corporate cultures that discourage employees from learning how to lead. Ironically, past success is usually the key ingredient in producing this outcome," he writes.

And the difference between management and leadership?

"Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly. The most important aspects of management include planning, budgeting, organising, staffing, controlling and problem-solving.

"Leadership is a set of processes that creates organisations in the first place or adapts them to significantly changing circumstances. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite the obstacles."

And only leadership, he adds, can "blast through the many sources of corporate inertia".

There's plenty to mull over in those paragraphs, because Singapore as a nation has enjoyed a decades-long streak of economic success, which in turn has spilled over to many of its businesses - both large and small.

Fortunes have been made and many have prospered. But how has this good run tilted the balance in favour of management over leadership? Is it time to reset the balance?

When I speak of leadership, I am not holding out for some strong man - or woman - with the smarts and charisma to push through major change on his or her own.

I am talking about having a critical mass of people who believe that it is possible to succeed at change, brave enough to take the necessary risks and committed enough to work long hours to see it through.

Many people here know in their heads that the Singapore economy must transform. Otherwise, why would the Government set aside $4.5 billion for an Industry Transformation Programme?

Its aim is to bring together stakeholders in each of the 23 key industries to change the way companies and workers operate.

Two months ago, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat urged employers, the business community, unions and workers to push on with change efforts. "If we persist... we will continue to make good progress," he said during a community visit.

But questions remain.

Are businesses changing fast enough? Do they and their workers have what it takes to compete in the face of disruption? What if the hoped-for transformation fails to work its way through the economy?

To be honest, there are days when I am pessimistic and worry that Singapore Inc will not make it. So many of us seem to have grown so comfortable with the way things are. We have no desire to leave our iceberg, even though there are signs it is melting.

But on good days, I am optimistic. I recall inspiring stories of corporate turnaround - GE, Apple, Nissan and Lego, to name a few.

I think of how well resourced Singapore Inc is today, in terms of its well-educated workforce, financial reserves and established brand.

It is my hope that this present testing time of disruption will forge a new generation of leaders, pushed by circumstances to imagine a new future and take risks to bring it about.

Speed, though, is of the essence. The pace of change globally has accelerated to a punishing degree and that looks set to continue. Those who would lead change cannot tarry.

Future prosperity hangs in the balance, and Singapore's whole way of life.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 17, 2017, with the headline 'Price of plenty: How past success slows present change'. Print Edition | Subscribe