Mastering change in a constantly changing world

When you learn more about yourself and think about your past experiences, you probably will find how much you’ve already learned from living without fully realizing it.

But what about those exterior massive changes that affect all of us, over which we have no control – the economy, war, accidents, and now, the growing threat of terrorism?

I turned to a real expert in helping people understand and cope with change. Dr. Leon Martell.

The cover of his book, Mastering Change, describes him as a political scientist and futurist. He was formerly Executive Vice President of the Hudson Institute. I talked with him about how individuals can cope with changes in their lives.

“The important thing is very simple,” Dr. Martell replied. “It’s to recognize that changes are occurring. It sounds so obvious, yet, again and again, when we make our plans for the future, we do so on the basis of what we’ve seen happen in the past. It’s perfectly natural because it’s familiar. You’ll find that many future studies begin ‘if present trends continue.’ Business as usual is the baseline from which most companies begin their forecasts.

“Individuals have to get over that tendency by looking at change as natural and continuity as unnatural. Present trends don’t always continue. Business as usual is unusual.

“Changes do have patterns – in direction, magnitude, pace and duration. You can’t always see every dimension in detail, but you can see some of them. All changes can be divided into two categories: structural changes and cyclical changes. Structural changes are ongoing, permanent and irreversible. You can’t go back to where you were before the advance of knowledge in any field. In medicine, for example, you don’t go back to the past; you go to a higher level.

“On the other hand many trends are often cyclical changes that tend to go up and down. Businesses and recoveries, crime and divorce rates, supply and demand, etc.

“Then you must understand that each type of change requires a different response. You look at patterns. What is the direction of this change? What is its magnitude? Look at those changes most likely to affect your life and focus on those. What it comes down to are these simple steps: Recognize that change is occurring Use your judgment to rank how likely they are to occur, identify those changes that affect your particular activities, determine the type and their pattern, and rank them by the likelihood of their occurrence. Then you have a handle on it. This evaluation has to be going on continuously because change is coming faster.”

I asked him to give me an example of what happens when companies assume some trends are permanent.

He said, “I visited Eastman Kodak several years ago and they showed me the Disc camera, a technically sophisticated new format for exposing film for still pictures. But the negatives produced by that camera proved to be too grainy when blown up for prints and sales were seriously disappointing. Forbes magazine said the camera was a “flop – a humiliating Edsel of a product.”

“Meanwhile Sony had introduced a new technology, a film-less camera that used electronic imaging. And the Kodak people said, ‘That technology is so inferior. The pictures are not nearly as good as the chemical ones.'” “I said, ‘It could be that this technology isn’t very mature yet. Maybe Sony with electronic energy, an entirely new technology, is really the future of photography.” Years later Kodak is still trying to catch up and recover its place in the photography world. Many other changes are buffeting all of us since the day of that interview.

For example, the increased security at airports and key industrial sites unfortunately seem to be a structural change mandated by the shotgun marriage of world terrorism and technology. Many changes in the labor market may be structural, with hundreds of thousands of workers being displaced by new technologies and foreign competition. These permanent changes may drastically affect how we plan our futures and advise our children about the education they will need for jobs in the future. The varying prices we see at gas stations is a cyclical change; we’ve seen them before and we will see them again, depending on world oil supplies and how much we increase or decrease our demands for oil.