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SMEs and responsible change management: The art of thinking clearly

‘Change management’ and ‘the art of thinking clearly’ are two phrases you wouldn’t usually utter in the same breath. Yet here they nestle, side by side. Why?

Well, hold that question in your mind for a moment. And ask yourself this:

Do any of the words below sound like me?

Intelligent. Competent. Overstretched. Overwhelmed. Juggling. Responsibilities. Early starts. International travel. Crazily busy. Balancing time. Intense competition. Battling PR crisis. Ensuring ROI. Building relationships. Demonstrating value.

Chances are that most of these phrases reflect a typical working day for you. Working life can make it hard to think clearly – particularly if you’re balancing multiple responsibilities and short timeframes. Approaching tasks in similar ways can help you to meet these deadlines. But unless you’re careful, new thinking can dissipate.

So how can I improve productivity?

You can always be more efficient, more productive. You can clear your in-tray, then devote your time to the bigger picture. Pursuing efficiency and productivity is worthwhile – and there are some fantastic productivity apps to help, covering everything from to-do lists and task management to meeting organisers.

Is productivity the key to thinking clearly then?

Not quite. No matter how productive your business, you may struggle to find time to consider company issues from a clear, fresh perspective. It’s more challenging still to direct your gaze outwards and fully understand your business’s impact on wider society.

It’s prudent to accept that in some cases you simply can’t do everything. There comes a point when stopping to think clearly and reflect is more valuable than driving efficiency.

Back in 2009, one company stopped to create that space. For a week, BAA gave philosopher and author Alain de Botton unrestricted access to explore Heathrow airport. A large airport like Heathrow is possibly the ultimate ‘always-on’ location where you don’t stop to think. Staff and passengers focus on moving things or themselves elsewhere. De Botton’s role, however, allowed him to cut through this hustle and bustle to provide a clear account of modern existence.

How does this relate to responsible change management?

The role of philosopher-in-residence involves more than an airport sojourn. It also has a place in today’s corporate world: philosophers help senior executives think critically about tough decisions.

In the US, Andrew Taggart describes himself as a ‘practical philosopher.’ His role is to ask tech execs “unrelentingly annoying” questions, as one client put it, to examine underlying beliefs and uncover painful truths.

Thinking critically about your business helps SMEs manage change

You don’t have to recruit a philosopher to think critically about your business

So can philosophy help us understand corporate responsibility?

Yes. Although corporate social responsibility has a broad definition. It’s not always obvious what your responsibility as a business entails. Philosophers can help define boundaries that support business ethics and social responsibility. At least that’s how Christian Vögtlin, associate professor in corporate social responsibility at Audencia Business School, sees it. Vögtlin told the Guardian that philosophers can “direct a business toward innovation that combines a good purpose and a real business opportunity.”

Taggart and Vögtlin are not alone. Professor Lou Marinoff works with organisations such as the World Economic Forum and BioVision, which deals with ecological and sustainable development projects in Africa. Marinoff helps business leaders create reflective space to think and gain new perspectives. Also speaking to the Guardian, he said: “These are very intelligent people, who are also overworked, more so than most of us. And they don’t have enough time to reflect.”

But we’re an SME, not a big corporate

How does this help us manage change?

You don’t necessarily have to recruit a philosopher to think critically about your business, although evidently it helps. Instead:

  • Accept that you think in a certain way. Your company culture shapes your thoughts; even your language shapes the way you think
  • Recognise that you need reflective space to analyse your own thinking:
    • Changes such as the GDPR or Brexit are great opportunities to create time to reflect and question your business practices
    • Physically moving elsewhere, for example, taking a business retreat, can prompt new thinking
  • Acknowledge the importance of external influences in bringing about change:
    • Bring in a speaker at a company event to provide fresh perspectives
    • A few sessions with a business coach may help unpick your thinking and boundaries
    • Relevant training fills knowledge gaps, clarifies responsibilities and can open up new ways of working
    • A new hire can provide a fresh pair of eyes, and challenge conventional wisdom. Plus, a diverse workforce will help your business better understand its effect on society

Hopefully the above has sparked some ideas on how to create time to reflect, think critically about the changes your business makes – and consider the impact they have on society.

If you’re still stuck for ideas, you can find out more and read recent research at Real Business, our digital publication for ambitious SMEs.

Caspian Media is also home to Business Advice, which provides expert guidance and advice for micro companies.

By Olly Goodall, Editor