Senior Fellow at Altimeter, speaker and New York Times best-selling author Ms Charlene Li explores the dichotomy of order and change.

We humans are a curious creation, a study in contrasts and contradictions. Take, for example, how our nature pulls us in two polar directions, one towards order and stability and the other towards change and growth.

On the surface, it appears that these forces cancel each other out but dig deeper, and you soon realise that they need each other to exist. When we stay in one place for a while, restlessness sets in, and we ache for serendipity. Similarly, when we’ve been on the move, fatigue hits us, and we long for a place to sit and catch our breath.

For the past year, we’ve all experienced the dichotomy of order and change. In just a few days, our organizations underwent a massive pivot as we shifted to pandemic operations, a change that we would have considered madness and impossible previously. As we cobbled together a new order, the monotony of living under a lockdown caused us to crave even the briefest encounter with a new person. And as we head into the post-pandemic era, we cling to our pandemic life routines while tentatively taking the first steps to explore what it means to live and work in the new “normal.”

Let’s dig a little deeper into order and change to understand their benefits and understand their dark sides.

As leaders, we’ve learned that success comes with order – stand in a straight line, put your toys away, get your homework done, deliver results on time and on budget. Do all these things, and you’ll be rewarded. Things operate as expected when there is order, and it fulfills our instinctual need for safety and security.

But order’s dark side is that too much of it beats improvements and innovations out of the system. Change, even the most incremental little spark, can be perceived as a threat to order and gets stamped out before it has any chance of catching fire. The result is an organization so brittle that even the slightest breeze of change from the outside threatens to break it apart.

In contrast, we also know rewards come when we improve, grow, and change. There is excitement in the new, and it gives us hope for the future. And there’s also the adrenaline rush that comes from having tried something new and not only survived it but triumphed!

But change also has a dark side. Change feels awful, especially when it happens so quickly that we don’t have a chance to adjust our perception of where we stand in the new world. We feel disrupted when the power in our relationships shift, and we won’t feel settled again until bonds and connections get re-established and normalised. Change can spiral out of our perceived control resulting in so much dissonance that it overwhelms us and leads to exhaustion. It’s not that we don’t want to change but that we want some predictability and stability.

Order and Change: Two Sides of the Same Coin

My research examines how disruptive leaders and their organizations not only survive disruption but thrive with it. We imagine that these disruptive organizations are hotbeds of disorder, a chaotic workplace where brilliant minds concoct innovations in the middle of the night.

What I found is just the opposite. These disruptive organizations embrace the seemingly contradictory ability to live with both order and change rather than swinging wildly between them. They create just enough order to ensure that change – even highly disruptive change – happens smoothly so that they don’t become victims of change fatigue.

Disruptive organizations invest heavily in structure, process, and policy to clarify and align how change will happen. They address the dark side of change – most notably the sense of disorientation and the fear and anxiety that comes from uncertainty – by creating processes that define and preserve relationships.

Processes include addressing issues such as who needs to be involved – or doesn’t – and who decides. They establish norms when it’s essential to come to a consensus versus when disagreements must surface alternatives. And they make clear what the consequences of both successes and falling short are to minimise surprises and create safety and stability for everyone at the start of the journey. As a result, they spend minimal energy on the change process itself and instead focus their attention on the future and the tasks needed to achieve it. For example, at the start of every project at Amazon, the team writes a one-page press release from the future, describing the problem the proposed product or service will solve, along with six FAQ pages that lay out details about how customers will use it.108 The team might spend weeks creating and refining that press release, but by the end of the exercise, they walk away with a crisp, clear explanation of how the project will help customers.

This approach forms the innovation infrastructure for Amazon—every proposal for a new product or service follows this format. It ingrains the leadership principle “be customerobsessed” into the innovation process by starting with the end customer experience and working backward to today.

The Discipline of Disruption

Amazon and disruptive organizations like it all have one thing in common – they bring discipline to disruption and growth. And you can as well – the solution is simple, but that doesn’t make it easy. There are three ways to impose order to drive exponential change.

The first is to invest in openness to create trust and accountability. In an open organization, your success and failures become readily available to everyone in the organization. There is no place for backroom lobbying or politics, where personal relationships trump facts and data. High performers get the recognition they deserve, mediocre performers up their game, and poor performers get ousted. Transparency clears the air and creates a single version of the truth that everyone sees and agrees is real.

Open organizations share not just their successes but also their problems and setbacks. They believe that the more people know about issues, the better they will be to overcome obstacles. That’s because learning happens when mistakes are made, attempts fail, and pilot tests crash. Unless these failures get shared openly and widely, each person is limited to learning only from their own experiences. Rather than spending precious energy defensively covering up problems and setbacks, openness encourages people to come forward by acknowledging the value of the learning that comes from failure.

Being open is hard for most leaders because we’ve been trained throughout our careers to believe just the opposite: that sharing is dangerous, that keeping things secret is safer, that information gives you power. We fear that being more open means giving up control. But just the opposite happens: you gain power when you decide how to delegate information access and decision-making rights. By shifting responsibility and accountability to others, you earn credibility and gain their trust—and that puts the organization in a better position to create a more significant change with greater impact.

Invest in openness in the following ways:

Measure openness and trust in your culture. You don’t need to measure everything— just a few behaviors that indicate that your efforts to create a more open, trust-based culture are working. For example, how comfortable are people talking to their boss’s boss? If there’s trust, this should be a practical action rather than becoming mired in politics.

Put vital data and information where people can best use them. Ensure that the data that will most sway a decision are readily available to the people who need it. At the start of the pandemic started, one organization I worked with realised that only executives had access to crucial customer data and metrics. Giving read-only access to anyone working on customer-facing initiatives signaled that the leaders trusted employees to use customer analytics wisely. This isn’t about breaking down data silos to create a 360-degree view of the customer, but strategically placing windows between them so that the information your organization already can to the people who can use it to create impact.

Jump-start information sharing with your participation. Among the most underused tools in an organization are enterprise collaboration tools and platforms, like SharePoint, Teams, and Slack. Sharing needs to start at the top, so find ways to share updates on how things are going, provide insight into how decisions are made, and solicit questions to create engagement. All of these actions will break down the power distance that naturally exists between levels and build deeper trust within the organization.

Second, develop agency in people, namely the capacity to act independently and make their own choices to see themselves as owners. There are few things more debilitating than feeling powerless or that what you do doesn’t matter. In my work with organizations, the top reason why people don’t take action is “I don’t have permission.” What a shame and waste of time to be waiting around for someone to give you the go-ahead.

The problem is that, like openness, we’ve been trained not to have agency to establish and keep order. Keep your head down, and don’t ask questions. Don’t think about a better way to do something – that’s above your pay grade. Or when we get up the nerve to say something, nothing happens. It’s either not heard or simply ignored. So why keep trying to be heard, seen, and known?

In contrast, disruptive organizations support employees to see themselves as owners and leaders of their transformation strategy. When they identify a need for change, they make it happen—and do so regardless of their actual title or role. People who have agency feel responsible for thinking about the organization’s good and making decisions based on its longterm interests.

The key to establishing order in such an environment links back to openness – when it’s clear what the strategy is, and there’s accountability for your actions, it serves as a natural check to undesirable behavior.

Establishing and supporting agency requires systematically doing three things:

Define the edges of the field of play. Watch how children play – if the playground has no fence, they stay close to the center. But a fence defines the boundaries of safety – and you can usually find a cluster of kids pushing that edge. Change is the same – without limits, people fear pushing things too far, so they don’t. Define the boundaries of what is possible and take your organization right out to the very edge so that they can see and experience it themselves. You may have to define the boundaries closer in the beginning to build up confidence in both you and your people that it’s safe to push out. Over time, keep expanding and redefining the edge to support the organization on the cusp of change.

Shift ownership and authority in chunks. If you give people ownership over a domain or a set of decisions overnight, they actually may not be ready to take it on. Instead, shift the responsibility to them over time—and tell them you are doing that. First, ask them to come to the table with recommendations, invite them to develop an action plan, and eventually make the decision. There is no easy shortcut to building agency in people: shifting ownership requires intention, communication, and mentorship.

Clarify when it’s OK to disagree versus when it’s time to commit. One of the biggest fears about encouraging debate is that when discussions are over and a decision is made, bad feelings will remain between them. Bad feelings are more likely to arise when disagreements surface after making a decision. Make it very clear that there are places and times for disagreement (e.g., at the start of a project) and encourage all views and positions to be shared. Also, be clear that after this period of debate is over and a decision has been made, the expectation is that everyone will be 100 percent committed to that decision, even if it’s not in their favor. Because one day the tables will be turned, and they will know that their colleagues will repay their commitment with their own.

Third, redefine our relationship with failure. One of my favorite sayings is, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” You learn and grow when you make mistakes and fail. And yet, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met highly accomplished leaders who secretly admit to me that they are terrified of failing. They spend a vast amount of energy trying to avoid failure or at least the appearance of it.

Failure carries the stamp of shame, and avoiding embarrassment drives much of what we do. Instead of classifying not hitting your goal as a failure, consider that it’s a data point where the gap between the objective and reality can be measured, studied, and closed in the next iteration. Agile leaders know that swift decision-making will reduce uncertainty. Even if the decision ends up in failure, they are better off knowing that it doesn’t work than staying back where they were before.

I am not advocating that you intentionally fail, but rather that you take failure in stride, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and find a different way to meet the objective. The capacity to grasp failure makes you realistic about the journey ahead, so you are prepared to rally the troops forward when the inevitable setbacks hit.

To bring order to failure, take these three steps:

Conduct effective postmortems. If your organization is like most others, stigma and shame often follow failure. It’s incumbent on you as a leader to acknowledge failure and help the person who is accountable for it to move on. Conduct a healthy postmortem that focuses energy not on whom to blame but on what everyone can learn and apply in the future. Codifying and sharing that learning across the organization signals that failure must be turned into a learning opportunity and makes it more acceptable to take risks. What should be unacceptable is a failure without learning—a wasted opportunity.

Make failure visible. Former Dun & Bradstreet CEO Jeff Stibel wanted to rewire how the organization thought about failure by adopting a “growth mindset” to look at mistakes as temporary setbacks that unveiled new paths to the objective. He quietly returned to his office one night and created a “failure wall,” using a marker to write some of his biggest failures on the wall for everyone to see. People were encouraged to write their most significant losses on the wall, including what they had learned, and sign their names. While you may not allocate an actual wall in the office, consider using a shared space or document for people to do the same virtually.

Define irreversible versus reversible decisions. The vast majority of decisions we make as leaders are reversible, and yet we treat almost all of them with the same rigor and intensity as if they were irreversible. Clearly define which decisions truly require that level of scrutiny and for the rest, be ready to change your mind if things don’t go as intended. The ability to reverse decisions removes the need to be “perfect” all of the time and allows a level of uncertainty and risk to enter into consideration.

Rather than focusing on the dichotomy between order and change, let’s appreciate how they complete each other. Being disciplined about using openness, building agency, and rethinking failure can prepare you and your organizations to thrive in a world of constant change.