I want to tip my hat to a song Sam Cooke wrote and sang in 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” This was not a new idea, by any means. The origin story points to Heraclitus of Ephesus, ca. 500 BC (or BCE, if you prefer), who declared, “The only constant is change.”
The business world is all about change. Let’s consider some implications of that statement.
Change provides enablement. Just recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The changes in technology that got us there, and the ever more rapid changes in technology that we’ve experienced since then, have enabled us to do things that we could only imagine (Think “The Jetsons” of 1960s TV) or, in fact, could not even imagine just a few decades ago.
For my career arc, enabling change came in the form of the development and proliferation of information technologies in the work place. It was called “data processing” when I got my start in industry. The impact on business process and, in fact, our day-to-day lives, has been enormous. Not only has the way we engage in transactions of many different kinds changed, but entire new industries have sprung up as a result of advances in information technologies.
I’ve often said, and my wife and my co-workers likely tired of hearing it, “Change is our friend.” A change is gonna come, so we may as well embrace it and leverage it to our advantage. That brings us to the idea that change provides opportunity. What do we tell business students all the time? “Find an unmet need, figure out a way to meet that need, and you’ve got a new product or service.” Here is how that might play out: Baby Boomers are currently hitting the ranks of the retired. They have been for a while, and will for another decade. A key change, in this illustration, is the demographic shift as that bulge of Boomers moves further along the timeline of life. So, what kind of opportunities does that represent? There are openings in the workforce that are job opportunities for younger workers. There are products and services needed by retirees, living into their 80s and 90s, that provide niche opportunities: home health services, health related products, products and services oriented toward the maintenance of independence, travel and leisure services for those with disposable income and the ability to go and do and experience. Lots of opportunities are there.
Finally, we should recognize that change requires management. If we are working on a project that takes 12-18 months to implement; by the time we get to the end, the business has gone through 12-18 months of change. We have to recognize those changes that are occurring that require a response, an adaptation. We have to manage to that. So, it’s necessary to put in place mechanisms that allow for making adjustments to our project’s objectives, scope, schedule, etc., in order to keep from deploying an already obsolete capability, product or service. Wherever possible, we want to address or influence change as it occurs, rather than just reacting to it after the fact. We need to be very intentional and forward looking about change in the work place.
Sam Cooke’s lyrics were forward-looking and, ultimately, optimistic. Here is the last verse from his song:
There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.
Sadly, he wrote the song in response to being turned away from a hotel in Louisiana due to the color of his skin. I am sorry to say that we have not made as much progress in that sphere as we should have over the last half-century. But, a change is gonna come, and that is something on which Sam Cooke and Heraclitus would agree. In whatever circumstance we find ourselves, whether the context is business, family, society, religion, government, etc., we need to embrace, champion, influence, leverage and manage change… for the good of all of us.
Michael Cross is an assistant professor of Management at Columbia College. After 35 years in the business world, he now teaches management courses in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business.