A True Story of a Skunk At My Feet

One balmy evening after dusk I was relaxing on the patio with my legs outstretched. Crickets had begun to sing, and Venus was slipping toward the western horizon. I had enjoyed another productive day. Everything was perfect. I wanted nothing to change.

Just then I noticed a small animal of some sort off to the right. It was already dark, so I couldn't quite make out what it was. Slowly approaching me, the furry thing waddled right up to my shoes and stopped.

You can imagine my horror when I realized the animal wasn't a feral cat, and it wasn't a squirrel. Nor was it a raccoon or a possum. It was a skunk, a polecat. I kid you not. For minutes that seemed like hours, it sat on its haunches just inches from my feet. I was never so perfectly still in my entire life. I didn't breathe. I didn't swallow. I didn't blink.

In an instant I went from wanting nothing to change to wanting everything to change, immediately and radically. Yet I could do nothing. If I had so much as burped, this little beast would have fouled the entire neighborhood. Everything within a quarter mile would have stunk for days. I could only wait it out, in perfect stillness and utter silence.

Eventually the skunk moved on, and I could exhale and blink again. Five minutes later I felt a sneeze coming on, and I prayerfully thanked the heavenly stars that I had not sneezed while my uninvited guest was sniffing at my feet.

This incident occurred several years ago. I recalled it again this week when the subject of change came to mind. I've noticed that, for some people and some companies, the thought of change can bring about such anxiety they react with terror and paralysis.

That isn't a problem in the presence of a skunk, figuratively or literally; the paralysis suits you just fine. But if the challenge you are facing requires that you change for the sake of innovation, or personal growth, or subject-matter mastery, or credibility, or a behavioral correction, or relational empathy, or anything else of importance or value, it most certainly is problematic. Your paralysis is part of the problem.

Regular readers will recall that a couple of my recent posts focused on helping people to identify the need for change and to muster the will to change. Indeed, change is a continuing theme of the MindingGaps blog, for change is the currency of leadership.

One reader objected to those columns. A successful business consultant, and a friend whose tone belies abundant personal warmth, he impetuously dashed off an email to me, which I reprint verbatim:

what the hell is all about this  "CHANGE" crap...

why do I need to change ?

I am successful and know what I am doing - why do YOU insist on changing me?

It's like women who hook onto a man and then want to change him?  WHY?

I'm satisfied with my life and work and manage my team without being overbearing or micro-managing - I motivate each team member and treat everyone that way I want to be treated.

NOW - my Government wants change !  Why, because they think if they need to change themselves, (because they are screwed up) it might be easier to CHANGE everyone around them first.  Kinda f***ed up if you ask me.

Well, that's one viewpoint, I told myself.

On the other hand, in a meeting a few weeks ago with a pair of executives of a large company, one of them asserted that every company wanted to change; no company did not want to change. I had to admit, that's another perspective.

In my own experience, most companies do want to change either their culture, or their operations, or their performance. Yet few actually change as much or as fast as they wish.

It is true that some recognize no need to change, so they never even set out to change. Others say they want to change when they actually do not. Many others genuinely want to change but do not know how. And many, many others seek to control and constrain their path of change, rather than create a culture of self-energizing and self-sustaining change that can redefine their marketplace. Over-engineering change can have the effect of stifling it altogether.

In any case, companies that are most in need of change but refuse to do anything about it are those that most risk being forgotten or marginalized in the years ahead. Anyone my side of 40 can name brands or products that are scarcely known to young people today—CompuServe, the Sony Walkman, Oldsmobile, Pan-Am, Schlitz, the DC-10, Zenith, Gourmet, camera film and slide projectors, DEC computers—and dozens of companies that are now subsidiaries or mere historical footnotes: Maytag, Gillette, TWA, Amoco, McDonnell Douglas, NCR, Ameritech, Warner-Lambert, A.G. Edwards, and so many more.

Even among extant companies, the tales of coulda-woulda-shoulda read like ghosts from a Dickens novel. I think of Xerox, whose share of the copier market plummeted from 90 percent in the 1970s to just 20 percent in the 1980s after Japanese manufacturers began selling better machines at lower prices. I think of IBM, which was so busy selling Selectric typewriters that it took a pass on the operating system and applications for personal computers, and instead let a couple of college dropouts start a cute little company they called Microsoft.

On the other hand, there is Apple, which has changed radically, and there is Google, whose culture is all about innovation, and there is Ford Motor Co., which is leading a resurgence of American auto manufacturing, and there is Amazon, which is becoming an online main street. American Express and Wells Fargo both got their start running stage coaches across the West, and today they are vibrant and dynamic. Even IBM has learned from its mistakes and reinvented itself.

The CEO of a Fortune 25 company put it well in an inspiring 1993 speech to his senior leadership team: "We need to embrace changenot for its own sake but for our sake. We must understand that the world isn't standing still and that we can't stand still either. People and organizations that delude themselves into thinking they do not need to change are on a course of self-absorption and self-destruction. From the British Empire to the Pickett Slide Rule Company, history is full of giants that failed to adapt."

The choice we face isn't merely between changing and not changing. The choice is between changing and dying. Indeed, in these times of rampant mergers and acquisitions, the choice is as much between changing and being eaten alive for breakfast by a competitor.

It's just that sometimes, the mere thought of change is so intimidating, it is paralyzing. I know. I have been there.