Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How To Embrace Change In Today’s Organizations

Learning to embrace organizational change

When it comes to successfully leading today’s organizations, one skill that’s been growing in importance and need is the ability to manage change. While many of us have read about various organizations to understand how they’ve dealt with change, I’d like to share an experiment done with crows to highlight some key lessons we can glean from this research on how to embrace change.

In his TED talk, Joshua Klein describes an experiment he performed to understand the nature of intelligence found in crows. For his experiment, Klein created a vending machine that would dispense peanuts when a coin was dropped into the coin slot. At first, he placed the peanuts on a feeding tray above the coin slot, along with a number of coins, to help attract the interest of the nearby crows.

Once Klein saw that the birds had become comfortable eating peanuts on the vending machine, he removed the peanuts from the feeding tray, leaving only the coins behind. When the other birds and squirrels inspected the device and found only coins on the tray, they left to forage for food elsewhere. The crows, on the other hand, used their beaks to push the coins around in order to see if they could find a peanut.

Naturally, this action caused one of the coins to fall into the coin slot, resulting in the machine dispensing a peanut. In a short period of time, the crows caught on that all they had to do was drop a coin in the slot to get a peanut from the vending machine.

Of course, to prove whether the birds understood this connection, Klein did one final change to his experimental set-up where he took the coins from the tray and placed them on the ground around the machine. Once again, the crows stuck around to figure out how they could get a peanut from the vending machine. Eventually, the crows spotted the coins on the ground and started picking them up with their beaks and dropping them in the coin slot to get their peanut.

While this research demonstrates the native intelligence found in these animals, there are also a number of valuable lessons it reveals about how we can approach and frame change within our organization.

1. Transform external changes into a beneficial advantage
What’s particularly interesting about this study’s findings is that when the peanuts were taken away, the crows didn’t lose interest in the device under the assumption that this food supply had run out. Instead, these birds investigated the situation – in their own way analyzing the change to determine what, if anything, could be done to restore this supply of peanuts.

What makes this behaviour noteworthy is that while we know that the vending machine could provide the crows with more food, the crows themselves had no reason to believe that they could still get some peanuts.

And yet, that didn’t deter the birds from trying to figure out how they could make these external changes in their environment into something that would be beneficial to them – in this case, one where they were able to continue to obtain peanuts from this vending machine.

Indeed, as Klein points out early in his talk, crows have demonstrated a keen ability to “adapt to new challenges and new resources in their environment” in a manner that transforms these unexpected changes into a beneficial advantage in terms of their survival and propagation.

When it comes how organizations manage change brought on by external forces, the common tendency is to approach it reactively – as though our collective boat has been overturned, leaving us to thrash about in the water. Inevitably, this creates stresses in our teams and workforce as our employees grapple with how to circumnavigate around these disruptions in an attempt to keep doing what they were doing before the change.

However, as the crows demonstrate, even when change is forced upon us externally through unexpected or uncontrollable factors, we can still transform these disruptions in how we operate into opportunities that can provide us with a beneficial advantage over our competitors.

It’s a pattern of behaviour we’re seeing at work in some of the most innovative organizations today, where they understand that these changes are a signal that they need to adapt how they operate or risk getting left behind.

A good example of this is Nike which, despite being known as a shoe company, has branched out into the digital space by creating new products like the digital bracelet FuelBand, which measures and tracks your daily movements, along with various smartphone apps and web services.

What’s noteworthy about these measures is that they’re not in conflict or removed from their organization’s purpose. Rather, they serve to reflect how their shared purpose can continue to find relevance in today’s increasingly digital, inter-connected world.

As with the crows and Nike, we need to recognize the benefit of reframing our perception of external changes so that it becomes something that we can connect to an emotional and purpose-driven need. Communicating and employing such measures will not only help your employees to adapt to these changes, but it will also help them to discover the hidden opportunities that can help your organization in reaching its objectives.

2. Make the learning process native to your organizational culture
While the squirrels and other birds didn’t bother with Klein’s vending machine when there were only coins in the feeding tray, the crows decided to stick around to try and figure out how they could get more peanuts.

For the crows, the learning process is clearly a native trait that’s been a key behaviour not only to their survival, but also why they’ve been able to thrive around human populations, despite the numerous physical changes we make to our surroundings.

While many leaders appreciate the importance of learning both for their organization’s development and that of their employees, how many have actually made this trait native to their culture?

Does your organization, for example, have clearly identified learning moments that demonstrate not only your commitment to faciliate learning, but one that provides your employees with the space to learn from mistakes and unforeseen challenges?

Given the rapid-pace of today’s world, it’s easy to hit a road-block or obstacle and assume we’ve hit a dead end and turn around. What the crows’ example reveals is the concrete value we can gain from instilling a learning culture within our organization so we can stretch our creativity and insights, and in the process, develop innovative approaches for how we can reach our shared goals.

3. Treat learning as a shared, collaborative process
As Klein points out in his talk, when crows learn a new skill or a new way to procure food, that skill is soon taught to other crows. As much as it might make more sense for the crows to keep this knowledge to themselves in order to secure a survival advantage, they seem to recognize that sharing this information ensures that the lessons are not soon forgotten, as well as allowing for faster adaptations when additional changes in their environment occurs.

Although it’s become easier for information to be collected and shared, many organizations are still reserving access to new insights, information and trends on a need to know basis. There are, however, a few exceptional leaders who’ve come to appreciate the importance of sharing and celebrating lessons learned on the job as a means to help increase the efficacy of the organization as a whole.

Leaders like Billy R. Taylor, who used his role as the Plant Manager for the Goodyear Fayetteville plant to implement measures like putting up information boards throughout the plant that identified which manufacturing team was working on a given product line and the level of output they were creating.

The purpose behind this measure was not simply as a means of accountability, but so that the different teams could learn from one another about what they were doing to improve how they operated. That’s why Taylor also had boards placed throughout the plant that showcased projects put forth by his employees that improved the plant’s productivity/cost-effectiveness thanks to the lessons his employees learned while working on the plant floor.

For leaders like Taylor, they realize that to thrive in today’s competive, global market requires more than hiring ‘knowledge workers’, but creating an environment where learning is shared throughout the organization to help all of his employees become knowlegeable contributors to their shared purpose.

They recognize that learning can’t exist within a vacuum or silo, but needs to be connected both to what you do and why you do it for it to have a long-lasting and meaningful impact on your organization’s performance and ability to adapt, grow, and thrive in the years ahead.

Looking at the work being done to discover and understand the true nature and capabilities of these animals, it’s hard not to appreciate the obvious intelligence crows exhibit in their ability to adapt and learn from what they encounter in their environments.

Perhaps more importantly, their example serves as a reminder of our own potential to embrace changes in our environment, and of our ability to adapt our approaches, perceptions, and understandings so that we can achieve what we started out to accomplish.

And in the process, hopefully learn as well how we can value and support our collective capabilities and resourcefulness towards achieving our shared goals.

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12 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | February 26, 2013 by |

12 Comments
  1. On February 26th, 2013 at 2:01 PM John Walston said:

    I love the crows example.

  2. On February 27th, 2013 at 9:10 AM Cathy@vps said:

    This experiment about crows reminds me of the experiment done by Ivan Pavlov that results to the discovery of associative learning. Though Ivan Pavlov once experimented on dogs not on crows. This just entails that if animals have the ability to learn, we humans obviously can learn even with the change in our environment.

  3. On February 27th, 2013 at 4:19 PM Bob Bennett said:

    Great example that goes beyond a lesson in change – it goes to the core practices and traits sought in business – creativity, purpose, innovation, results, independent thinking,…
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. On February 27th, 2013 at 10:14 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    You're welcome, Bob. Thanks for sharing your insights on this piece. A genuine pleasure to see you here.

  5. On February 28th, 2013 at 6:04 PM Dan Forbes said:

    So, it is possible to teach an old crow new tricks. It's good to know there is hope for me. 🙂

  6. On February 28th, 2013 at 8:02 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    There's definitely hope for you, Dan. In fact, recent research in the neuroscience field has demonstrated that we're not born with a finite number of neurons (brain cells), but that our brains are constantly creating new neurons and connections every time we learn a new skill.

    The more we employ that skill, the stronger the connections become at which point that skill becomes a native habit.

    So there is definitely hope for you and the rest of us to adapt to change and develop new skills/approaches.

  7. On March 1st, 2013 at 7:20 AM allipolin said:

    Much to learn and apply from watching the crows, Tanveer! Thanks for sharing! I especially like point #3 about sharing the learning instead of hoarding it. Too often in organizations people keep information to themselves instead of sharing it so everyone can have greater success vs a small group.

    If the crows could embrace change, imagine what would be possible if we did the same in our organizations (instead of just walking away to find somewhere else to feed like the squirrels)

  8. On March 4th, 2013 at 11:26 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Alli; I think the idea of sharing our learning is probably one of the hardest things for many to do because it can feel as though we might be giving an advantage to others.

    However, from my own experiences, I've always found it more fulfilling and enriching when I share what I learn with others as that not only allows others to improve, but it also helps to shed light on other aspects I hadn't appreciated that others are able to reveal.

    Thanks again, Alli, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  9. On March 3rd, 2013 at 2:20 PM @tonybrugman said:

    Hi Tanveer, love reading this post! Couldn't help to think of the book "Who Moved My Cheese?" I can definitely see resemblances between the smarter crows and the smarter mice in the book. I didn't know Klein's TED talk, thanks for mentioning and sharing!

  10. On March 4th, 2013 at 11:27 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    My pleasure, Tony. Glad you enjoyed it.

  11. On March 6th, 2013 at 9:00 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Interesting post. Collaborative work places will now be further ehanced by internal social platforms (intranet), but will also need to be balanced with personal face time as well (e.g., water fountain time).

  12. On March 8th, 2013 at 4:04 AM msmkhana said:

    As I am owner of my company always trying to find the new way to teach my employee so that they could able to understand the new technology and vision of organization. I got new idea from your post and the way you have focused crows example is really interesting.

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