Early in the nineteenth century something new began appearing across the landscape of England: Textile Mills. These early factories were filled with an exciting new technology known as the wool finishing machine. These wide-framed automated looms could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labor and made it easier and faster to produce a host of durable goods for the country’s ever-expanding population.
These mills, proving ever more efficient and effective than the “croppers” the men and women who had traditionally done the job, rapidly proliferated. And in short order, the existing cottage culture of weavers, combers and dressers of wool, became increasingly threatened. People who, for hundreds of years had grown accustomed to working out of their homes or in a small village shop, were now suddenly out of a job.
Fearful of the rapid changes occurring around them, those being displaced by the new technology chose not to accept what was happening sitting down. So they revolted. Setting into motion a plan to attack and destroy the very mills and machines that threatened their long standing traditions and comfortable habit patterns.
Calling themselves “Luddites” after a mythical leader by the name of “General Ned Ludd,” they embarked on a comprehensive campaign against positive progress. For over fifteen months the Luddites broke into mills at night and did everything in their power to destroy the dreaded machines. In fact, for a short time they were so formidable that they clashed openly in battles with the British Army. But in the end, after destroying a number of wool and cotton mills, they were discovered and detained by authorities and forced to disband. The movement doing little to defeat their individual fear of progress or deter the ever-escalating pace of change they would continue to encounter in the future.
Ultimately, in trying to cling to the familiarity of their well accustomed routines and predictable patterns, all the Luddites managed to do was make a name for themselves as defenders of the status quo. Their fear of the future preventing them from recognizing how change, though often personally uncomfortable and inconvenient, can create valuable opportunities to stretch and grow in important new directions.
Denying the Need for Change
Centuries ago Niccolò Machiavelli observed that “…it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new conditions.”
Although written hundreds of years ago, what Machiavelli speaks of is every bit as relevant today as it was then: escaping from the status quo, the comfort of doing what we’ve done in the past, is no easy undertaking. In fact, it bears remembering that 8 out of 10 organizational transformation efforts that involve a diverse group of stakeholders fail outright. About half of those who cross the proverbial finish line fail to meet minimum expectations they established at the outset and almost all of them exceed both their targeted budgets and desired schedule. And to make matters all the more daunting, the more successful an organization has been in the past, he harder it is for them to embrace the need for change.
Scientist and psychologists who study how people deal with change tell us the reason for this stems largely from our very human fear of the unknown and the discomfort wrought by possessing no clear view of the future. In simplest terms, most of us prefer to believe that the consequence of deferring a decision, or worse, pursuing the path of least resistance, won’t catch up with us.
But in our world of ever-accelerating change, we don’t possess such a luxury. Change is here to stay. Leaving us to make the choice to continue to adopt the approach of the Luddites and avoid change all-together, or face our fears head on and lean into the opportunity to try and do what we reasonably can to positively influence our future.
In the words of Seth Godin, “The status quo is persistent and resistant. It exists because everyone wants it to. Everyone believes that what they’ve got is probably better than the risk and fear that comes with change.” So the only question remaining is, how we choose to respond when the need for change comes knocking. Will you follow the path of the Luddites, who, like so many in our society let fear and anger control their actions and hang on for dear life? Or, will you make the countercultural choice and accept responsibility for seizing control of your situation and lean into change so you can grow into the best version of yourself possible?