Leading Change: It’s About Friction, Force and Risk

I recently spent a half-day with students at the William J. Clinton School of Public Service.  They are a remarkable group of students working on a Masters degree in Public Service.  We spent our time focusing on a framework for personal leadership as well as some practical tools for their teams to use as they engage in service projects as part of a practicum course.   Most of all, we talked about leading change.

Change- any change- no matter how significant or how simple, means upsetting the current reality.  It means incurring friction and risk.  If the change is merely moving a coffee cup from one counter to the other, by definition friction is needed to grasp the cup force is needed to move it.  And the risk that the cup will end up on the floor in shards, no matter how small, is significantly increased from when it was at rest on the counter.

Big organizational and cultural change is not as different as we might think.  Asking people to move to a new reality means leaving behind the familiar.  It means getting them to let go of what is comfortable.  That requires friction and force.  Ideally it is self generated friction and force.  The ideal motivator is a vision compelling enough to create willingness to be uncomfortable.  But the outcome is still the same, friction and force.

In one debate, one of the students was concerned about the unfairness of stress put on people who may not feel that they are in a position to pursue a change.  She argued that not everyone can tolerate the amount of stress or has the resource to pursue big dreams… and that is where the risk part comes in.  No one changes the world by playing it safe.  And no one is promised parity either.

Every change carries with it risk.  In order to seriously pursue any new reality, we must be willing to sacrifice the current one.  Or, as André Gide put is so eloquently “One does not discover new lands unless one is willing to lose sight of the shore.”