Changing how we do change

“We need to change how we do change.” Kieran Flanagan

As I am cycling with a group of friends recently in Sydney on an unusually warm winter’s morning, standard protocol dictates that it is again time to roll turns within the group. I find myself having the same conversation for the umpteenth time with fellow cyclists about the challenging and unprecedented times of change that we are all living in.

Now, given the uncertainty of 2020 and the constant and grim news cycles, these conversations are of course no surprise (and undoubtedly warranted). But I couldn’t help notice the parallels between my cycling conversations and a keynote given by Kieran Flanagan that I’d heard earlier in the week at The Research Society Virtual Conference 2020.

Kieran Flanagan and Dan Gregory, are the Founders of The Impossible Institute, and authors of the book Forever Skills. She is often described as a creativity expert. Fun-natured and incredibly captivating, Flanagan opens the conference by acknowledging the truly crazy time of change that we all live in.

 Our changing world

Flanagan concedes we are not only living in a ‘change crazy world’, we have entered the era of the ‘exabyte’ and are drowning in data. Our thirst for connectivity unites us. By way of example, and documented by the UNHCR, Kieran told us how Syrian refugees finally arriving in refugee camps often ask ‘Is there WIFI?’ and ‘Can I charge my phone?’, not ‘Is there water or shelter?’

Despite the scale and pace of change, Flanagan points out that as human beings we do not actually like change or do change particularly well. She highlights how humans tend to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring equivalent gains. But she says this no longer serves us. As such, she says “we need to change how we do change”. She offers her three spheres of change as a framework for dealing with change — as recently covered in our Business as Unusual series.

Three Spheres of Change

Flanagan suggests individuals (and many businesses) spend most of their time in the first sphere talking about what is changing. The more talking we do, the more anxious and panicked we feel, worrying robots will take our jobs in a not too distant dystopian world. The second sphere gets less attention, beyond considering how businesses and industries can remain innovative. Even less time is spent in the third sphere. Flanagan stresses the importance of consciously considering these ‘Forever Skills’ as a way of successfully future proofing our business and personal lives.

What are the ‘Forever Skills’?

In short, the ‘Forever Skills’ are timeless, transferrable human skills. Flanagan and Gregory interviewed hundreds of ‘successful’ people to find out which skills they viewed as always being crucial to success in their business and personal lives: 12 distinct skills emerged. Gregory and Flanagan divided the ‘Forever Skills’ into three buckets: creativity, communication and control.

Flanagan reminds her virtual audience that, unlike technical skills, the more human, or ‘Forever Skills’, cannot be so easily learnt. Like a cyclist preparing for a race, we need to work to build our Forever Skills muscles.

Flexing our creativity muscle means actively rejecting the idea that individuals and industries are pigeonholed into sectors, spaces and/or skills. Strengthening our communication skills will ensure we can support diverse thinking, which is front and centre in our work as evaluators. Lastly, we need to practice control of our personal and professional selves to ensure we get what we want done.

This was a timely reminder for me that our best evaluation work happens when we anchor our projects, programs and/ or services to what is not changing. What will endure is where our focus needs to be, even as we are evaluating in uncertain times. As evaluators, we need to ask what in our business and industry will remain forever unchanged? This will allow us to forge ahead more purposefully.

I was thankful I had taken the time out to attend her virtual keynote, and it was a good reminder to carve out the space for reflection. As I ride the solo road back home, I had a quiet moment to myself. While I may not be able to race during the pandemic, I am still riding my bike, doing it with friends (while social distancing of course), relishing in it as much as I always have, and struggling (yet again) on the final hill climb home. Some things just don’t change.

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