Why change is child's play

Former teacher Richard Gerver is credited with turning around some of the UK's most troubled schools. But he says changing's easy - if you go with the flow.

by Richard Gerver
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I have spent most of my adult life working with creative, enterprising people; people capable of dealing with uncertainty, with a thirst for exploring the unknown, for taking risks and for embracing a world of constant change and evolution. Admittedly, they’re all under 11 years of age.

Education is a profession notorious for its adversity to change – and through my time working in it, I’ve reached the conclusion that most of us have more to learn from our children than they do from us, particularly when we’re dealing with the complex and often frustrating issue of change.

We learn more in our first five years than in the rest of our lives. It’s an extraordinary thought, but I’m not talking about accumulated knowledge: we’re born into a world that’s completely alien to us; we know nothing; have no context, no way to communicate. Every minute of every day is unexpected, new, changing

But very few infants have breakdowns because of the stress of it all. We thrive, learning how to walk, talk, understand vocal intonation, body language and facial expressions, among myriad other skills and experiences. We are the perfect modern worker: adaptable, questioning, creative and eager.

So where does it go? Why, as we grow and evolve do we focus on maintaining what we know and what we do, why do we become reactive rather than proactive beings? So many of us stop exploring and questioning – we go from explorers to people waiting to be controlled, told what to do and how to think. Change stops being an organic process and becomes a strategy needed to be driven through. We become resentful and suspicious of change. So what can we do?

Among other things, as children we are not driven by outcomes, which gives us time to think, reflect, to question and explore. Some of the world’s most successful companies know this and build time for abstract thinking and experiences that can stimulate new thinking and an interest in new ideas – Google’s 20% time and Pixar’s university for example.

We all engage in learning and development when we feel in control and we need to work hard to ensure change isn’t the preserve of management but can be evolved from anywhere by anyone. Perceived ownership of an idea increases involvement and commitment. Too often workers become disengaged because they constantly feel ‘done to’. We must create the conditions for real engagement – the next great idea could come from anywhere, if you let it.

Risk-taking is at the heart of learning and development. Sadly, from a very young age we are taught that logic is the only currency of clever and that getting things right is the marker of success.

What I have learnt through my years in education is that you only learn something new at the point of a mistake or upon realisation that you don’t know something or can’t do something. Above all things, if we’re to realise our own potential and therefore that of our workforce, we must work hard to ensure organisations celebrate risk and nurture the process of learning.

- Richard Gerver is the author of Change: Learn to Love it, Learn to Lead it (Portfolio Penguin, June 27th). Contact Richard on Twitter: @richardgerver

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