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Change Lessons from the Fall of the Wall

On this day in 1989 the Alexanderplatz demonstration began.  Between half a million and a million people gathered in East Berlin to protest the Socialist Unity Party of Germany regime and demand reform. Five days later, the peaceful “fall” of the Wall began.

BerlinWallRPThis picture was taken last Friday when we were at Berlin Change Days. It’s one of the remaining pieces of the wall.

Change Lessons:

  • Change Requires Courage. While the decision to make a change may come easily, the courage to stick with it is exponentially more difficult. After years of separation, there was a lot to overcome between East and West Berlin. Between infrastructure updates, social changes, economic changes and educational differences,a lot of work was required to integrate the divided city. Many leaders make the announcement of an exciting new change. Far fewer leaders do what it takes to see the change through to completion.  The failure rate of change is explained by the lack of leadership support for changes which begin with great fanfare and enthusiasm but fizzle out and are abandoned by leaders. The courage to stay the course is the key factor in successful change.
  • Change Impacts People Differently. Not everyone is happy about change. In The Atlantic, an article by Lane Wallace talks about her visit to the eastern German village of Krausnick. They suffered the loss of thousands of soldiers and civilians. Despite the unspeakable horrors of the past, they had a memorial to the Russians which was preserved with loving care. When Lane asked the townspeople they said that they missed the Russians because they had security during their reign. Although the townspeople didn’t have everything they wanted during that time, they didn’t have to worry about losing their job, paying the rent or figuring out how to afford a new car. As shocking as it may be for some leaders, the wonderful change they want to implement may not be as exciting for the recipients of the change.
  • Change Takes Time. Although the wall may have fallen 25 years ago, Germany is still working through the challenges of bringing East and West together. There is no such thing as a quick fix or an instant change. In this microwaveable world, leaders must understand that the work of lasting change requires patience and time. There are accelerators to the change process, but nothing is instant.
  • Reunification Matters. For far too long, leaders have defined success in terms of bottom line business results at the expense of their people. The path of failure is littered with measures and metrics which left out the very people who are needed to accomplish the results. It’s time to bring together people, strategy and projects in order to achieve true lasting success.

Walls aren’t the only barriers that exist. Although many companies are creating “open working environments,” silos exist and prevent the free flow of ideas, talent and creative innovation. These invisible walls are holding back the potential of teams, functions, business units, departments and organizations. How can you stage a revolution and bring down the walls of separation?

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