The change challenge: The thrill of steering “skill and will” | Sunday Observer

The change challenge: The thrill of steering “skill and will”

28 February, 2021
Session chair, Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri  makes a point at the second technical session of the AAT conference. Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe, the speaker (extreme right), and the panelists, Ms. Kasturi Wilson, Mahendra Jayasekara (extreme left) and Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe look on.
Session chair, Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri  makes a point at the second technical session of the AAT conference. Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe, the speaker (extreme right), and the panelists, Ms. Kasturi Wilson, Mahendra Jayasekara (extreme left) and Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe look on.

Streeting the change without turning back could be a timely need. It requires skill and will at all levels. This was the opportune theme of the annual conference of the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) held recently. It was indeed delightful to get involved in it as a session chair, with Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe as the speaker and three eminent panelists, viz. Ms. Kasturi Wilson, Mahendra Jayasekera and Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe. Today’s column is a set of random reflections on it. 


Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe made a very comprehensive presentation on the need to steer the skill and will in a transitional VUCA world. He impactfully narrated the change from a NICE to VUCA. According to him, “today , markets are no longer NICE. In fact, they have transformed to VUCA ++ hence challenging the traditional business decision making models”. Here NICE refers to  Non-Inflationary Consistently Expansionary. VUCA as we are aware is all about Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. In fact, I reminded about the VUCA 2.0 as the needed response in being Visionary, Understanding, Confident and Agile. 

Whether we like it or not, change has become a necessity in an increasingly competitive world. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change”. Whether you are distinct or extinct will depend on how you respond to change. It can be a case of being a victor or a victim.  Such a scene is far more relevant to us than any other time because of Covid-19 pandemic. 

It was Kurt Lewin, a change management expert who discussed way back in 1951, a three-step concept to the change management process. As he puts it briefly and brilliantly, such a process is structured around three interrelated activities:

* Unfreezing the existing organizational structures, systems, and procedures

* Implementing changes to create the desired organizational outcomes

* Refreezing the organization.

Lewin also uses an interesting metaphor to describe the process of change. He suggested that that changing an organization is like navigating a large ship across calm waters. The captain makes the occasional adjustment to the ship’s course, there is furious but coordinated activity while the ship reorients it, and then the whole ship moves off calmly in a new direction.

What Kurt Lewin stated some time ago is of direct relevance to what Prof. Nicholas Negroponte stated in his much famous best-seller, “being digital”,  that got translated into over forty languages. 

The Negroponte Switch 

Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe referred to the Negroponte Switch in his speech, sharing its significance in the current set of events. It is attributed to the thought sharing of Prof. Negroponte and the term was coined by his colleague George Glider in 1989. Based on interaction with Nicholas Negroponte he asserted, “what goes over the air (broadcast TV and radio) will go via wire and what goes via wire (telephony) will go over the air.”

Negroponte argued that the reverse situation should prevail. A better use of available communication resources would be to deliver broadband content using cables and narrowband content using airwaves. That came to be known as the “Negroponte Switch”.

Is it relevant today? Dr. Ravi Edirisinghe dealt with this question with many examples. Newspapers to online news channels, automatic geared cars vs. self- driven cars, physical banking vs. online banking and motorcycles vs. scooters (especially in Sri Lanka).

It was interesting to see the rapid decline in the number of travel agents in the United States as opposed to the rising of the revenue of online hotel booking. 

“In a decade, you will learn French by taking a pill”, the visionary words of Prof. Negroponte might sound too difficult to believe but if works, will be the most prominent Negroponte switch in our times with a clear shift of education from its traditional forms. It in fact reminds me of the movie “Matrix” where Neo, a key character “learns kung fu” by interfacing his brain with a computer. 

Switching from skill to will 

Referring to the popular matrix of Skill vs. Will by Hershey and Blanchard, Dr. Edirisinghe suggested that it is far more impactful to focus on small teams with higher will power. It rhymes well with the modern-day HR approach of hiring for attitude and training for aptitude. Empowering for action with the delegation of tasks with authority is a need of the hour. The sheer determination of such teams will go a long way in acquiring the necessary skills for achieving stretched targets. Google has proven that it is possible on a global scale. 

Contributing to the panel discussion, Ms. Kasturi Wilson mentioned how her employees were empowered towards taking decision at operational levels during the peak of the first wave of COVID19 in Sri Lanka. The will mattered here with the trusting of people in achieving the expected results. The need to ensure continuous communication in building confidence and commitment was also emphasized. 

Mr. Mahendra Jayasekera, sharing his thought from a manufacturing perspective, emphasized the need to have the right attitude towards productivity. As opposed to the mindset of seeking a pensionable job with less work, how his team is “walking the extra mile” in giving their fullest contribution was appreciated. It again emphasized the “will” factor in action, amidst obstacles in turning them into opportunities. 

Dr. Prasad Samarasinghe, heading a communication provider, illustrated the virtues of digitalization with examples of change from analog to digital in local scenario. He emphasized the fact that the solutions provided by emerging technologies should be meaningfully explored for the betterment of humanity. 

In fact, all three panelists were in harmony with regards to the need of steering change for the better with no turning back. It requires more leadership actions, where developing new business models as true leaders is more needed than running same businesses as traditional managers. 

Steering change

John Kotter, an authority on leadership and change claims that 70 percent of the major change initiatives in organizations fail. Based on his findings, he has identified an eight-stage process for achieving successful change in an organization. It is worthwhile to look into Kotter’s eight-stage process and to see its relevance to Sri Lankan managers facing daunting challenges with Covid-19. 

Step 1: Establishing a Sense of Urgency: According to Kotter, establishing a sense of urgency is necessary to gaining the cooperation needed to drive a significant change effort. We saw this worldwide with the wave of wearing face masks amidst COVID19. Sri Lankan managers, the way I see, have somewhat been successful in establishing a sense of urgency.  

Step 2: Creating the Guiding Coalition: The Covid-19 task force successfully established in Sri Lanka is a case in point. No one person, no matter how competent, is capable of single handedly doing the vital things. Sri Lankan managers also face with the dilemma of selecting the right people in driving change. Sometimes such guiding coalitions have acted as true catalysts in ensuring change whilst others have ended up being catastrophic. We have many examples for both above cases.

Step 3: Developing a Change Vision: A clear vision serves three important purposes, says Kotter.  First, it simplifies hundreds or thousands of more detailed decisions.  Second, it motivates people to act in the right direction even if the first steps are painful.  Third, it helps to coordinate the actions of different people in a remarkably fast and efficient way.  Regarding Sri Lankan scenario, we can see a growing awareness of the need to have a vision. However, forming a vision is just one step. Sharing of it and getting the required support for it from all concerned is the thing that needs major improvements. 

Step 4: Communicating the Vision for Buy-in: Gaining an understanding and commitment to a new direction is never an easy task, especially in complex organizations. As Kotter observe, under-communication and inconsistency are rampant. Both create stalled transformations. Sri Lankan managers are no better. We see major communication gaps in the areas of getting the buy-in for change initiatives. Every human being is interested in knowing how a new initiative can impact him or her. 

Step 5: Empowering people and removing barriers: Kotter said that empowering employees involves addressing four major obstacles: structures, skills, systems, and supervisors.  Structural barriers are often the internal structures of companies work as cross-purposes to the change vision.  Another barrier to effective change can be troublesome supervisors.   They may not actively undermine the effort, but they are simply not “wired” to go along with what the change needs.  Sri Lanka has got them in abundance. 

Step 6: Generating short-term wins: According to Kotter, for leaders in the middle of a long-term change effort, short-term wins are essential.  Running a change effort without attention to short-term performance is extremely risky.   As we have seen in Sri Lanka, short-term wins also tend to undermine cynics and self-serving resistors. 

Those critics who opposed military playing a role in tackling Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka are silent now. Clear improvements in performance make it difficult for people to block the needed change.   

Step 7: Never Letting Up: Emphasis here is to use increased credibility to change systems, structures and policies that do not fit the vision. It also included hiring, promoting, and developing employees who can implement the vision. In Sri Lanka we are mostly starters and not finishers.

The relatively higher number of foundation stones compared to the completion plaques is one such evidence. 

Step 8: Incorporating Changes into the culture: Culture is how people collectively behave with shared norms and values. Gert Hofstede, the veteran Dutch anthropologist calls it “collective mental programming”.  This also is a significant area for improvement for Sri Lankan managers. I have personally witnessed many instances how a massive change initiative dies down in the face of a leadership change.  

Way forward

The thought sharing by the speaker and the panelists of our secession in the AAT conference had a clear congruence. It is the need to change for better and the acute need to drive change as sensible business leaders. Both in the private and public sectors, change has simply become a necessity and a definite reality amidst Covid-19 pandemic. At a time where the vaccination has begun, the way we change for better in a new normal is yet to be seen.