What Leaders Can Learn About Change From Facebook

What Leaders Can Learn About Change From Facebook September 21, 2011


[Photo: drurydrama]

Tickers, blue corners and close friends oh my.

Yes, Facebook has done it again. Not since the great “Rounded Corners Kerfuffle of 2008” has there been such an uproar over changes to the design and architecture of our beloved Facebook. I know that there are a variety of reactions to the recent changes, but it seems as if many of the people who are pitching the biggest fits are folks who, in other contexts, consider themselves agents of change. So yeah, for all of you who genuinely seem pissed off about the recent slew of changes, I am unapologetically pointing my bloggy Judgey McJudgerson fingers at you!

All of the outrage reminds me of a quote that I heard at some point and have adopted for myself . . .

I love change . . . for other people.

. . . because when it comes right down to it, most of us do not easily embrace change as much as we would like to think we do. Most of us like to guide the change, be part of the change-making and be comfortably on dry land when the waves of change arrive. So on those occasions when change happens TO us we let the status update wrath rain down. Love you all, I really do . . . but sometimes we need to take a step back and lighten up or at least be a little more playful about our disdain for Team Zuckerberg.

At the same time, the outrage over the changes offers us a unique opportunity to examine our own leadership in times of change. For those of us who are in the business of helping organizations: churches, boards, etc. navigate change, this episode can offer some insight into how we lead the daunting task of communal change.

If you have no idea what the heck I am talking about check out this Washington Post article about all of the recent changes. Basically Facebook has just kicked Google+ in the [choose your own body part] and duplicated some of the things that made Google+ the cool new kid on the block in terms of how you see what you see and from whom you see what you see. You see?

But back to change leadership. Here are a few thoughts about change that leaders can take from all of this. These are not stand-alone ideas, but a few postures of leadership that can be woven together in order to create meaningful change.

  1. People do not like to be surprised – Excluding the occasional surprise party, unexpected clean kitchen and/or an unsolicited show of affection from a loved one, human beings do not like surprises. Now I am not sure that Facebook, with its scale, can completely inform the masses, but generally speaking, most of the conflict that happens in smaller organizations occur when people are surprised by change. Good leaders to not catch people off-guard. Genuine notification and interaction during all stages of a process of change can inspire even the biggest detractors to get behind the idea of change.
  2. We like to control the change – Related to number 1, most people want to be part of the change. Even the best leaders are willing to be lead, but when left out of the loop, those same leaders, who might otherwise welcome change have the kind of negative visceral reaction that we are seeing about Facebook changes. Again, it’s economy of scale, but be it Facebook or a board of directors if the change process engages those for whom the changes will impact in a way that shapes and forms the changes there will generally be more buy-in from those might not even agree with the specifics of the change.
  3. Trust must never be taken for granted – One of the biggest mistakes that new leadership makes when trying to lead change is overestimating the social capital that he/she has and needs with the body that is being lead. Yes, you can sometimes take advantage of honeymoon periods of leadership, but overall even the most drastic and surprising changes can be buffered if folks trust the leader. Apple is a great example of this. Because “the cult” trusts the Apple brand so much, we eagerly await the next surprise. Sure, we want to be the first to know, but there is such a high level of trust that Apple can almost dismiss numbers 1 and 2 as they think about the next changes. Facebook does not carry that same kind of trust, recently even seeming like a necessary evil in the world. Organizational leaders must be able to discern those times when building trust must take precedent over the immediacy of the change and eventually must be able to use the process of change itself in a way that builds trust.
  4. Sometimes you have to go for it – Sometimes, we must go big or go home. The shadow side of a deliberate process of change is that “…sometimes we talk about something so much that we think we have actually done it.”* We follow rabbit trails of engagement or discernment that lead to a wasteful use of resources, avoidance of making decisions and/or catering to those who would prefer that things always stay the way things are.
  5. Our response to the reactions to the changes can be just as important as the changes themselves – With numbers 3 and 4 firmly in my mind, sometimes how we respond to bad change decisions can help build trust in a way that makes future changes that much more meaningful. Leaders who can deftly and genuinely apologize for mistakes without abdicating their role of leadership build a culture where people are not afraid of failure and think about change in a different way. Individuals and organizations can then be seen not as monolithic decree makers, but as places where the complexities of change, success and failure can be handled without anxiety and panic.
  6. Remember that this too shall pass – Without seeming to have a heart of stone, in the face of change good leaders do not add to the anxiety of the body or let outrage drive a faithful vision. While leaders must do all possible things to make sure that change is received well, most leaders know that it rarely is to the extent that we would like it to. Taking the parachute view of the life and rhythm of an organization allows leadership to avoid jumping from crisis to crisis to the detriment of the larger movement of the organization. Crucial to keeping the long view is knowing that most crisis are really not crisis at all and that once people can vent a bit, most change handled well will be embraced. Take for instance the aforementioned 2008 Rounded Corners change. Facebook is now back to square corners and here is their explanation why. Yes, passionate at the time, but from a wider point view, just an evolution of the culture.

I am sure there are more things that we can learn, so please feel free to offer them up here.

* I stole that from someone who stole it from someone else.


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  • Bobbiemcgarey

    Change is not a 4-letter word but it is oft spoken as if, And reaction is oft the same repulsion

    JERRY Jeff Walker sings. “Change is the very most natural thing and life is mostly attitude and timing.”.

    Keep up the spirit Bruce

  • Derrick McQueen

    Thanks Bruce, this is helpful for many other situations I am navigating and mediating through “change”.

  • Good point and insight. thanks.

  • Thanks for helping to flesh this out a little more. I think the loss piece is a big part of it.

  • matt gough

    If there isn’t a negative reaction then no change was made. I think that could be a universal truth.

    I have no doubt that Apple’s changes cause a similar amount of uproar among some. However, Facebook is a public forum and such displeasure is easily and immediately voiced. It even can create a kind of group-think where people respond in knee-jerk fashion. I have seen too many voice displeasure about the loss of something but then in a few comments from others realize that it wasn’t lost but is accessed differently. You could argue that organizations need to better educate about changes but isn’t this also a shared responsibility?Change is always an opportunity to choose how you will respond. Not saying all change is good but neither are all responses to change.I’m not arguing with anything written here, but I do think that we cannot lay fault or the responsibility squarely on one side. We change things in flawed ways, but we also all respond to change in flawed ways. 

  • Cynthia Holder Rich

    Perhaps also,
    8.  Change that pleases some will not please others.  The Ticker is really difficult for me to deal with and I wish I could turn it off (back to the control issue above) — but then, I don’t like the crawl at the bottom of the screen on the news either, except when there seems to be some rational reason to share two messages at once — like, my kids’ school just decided to close.  But the running crawl is very distracting for me and the Ticker performs the same function — making it difficult for me to attend to that which I’m facing.  For others who grew up with multiscreens, this might not have the same impact.

  • Paulrack

    Excellent, Bruce.  You say more and in a better way than some whole books on the subject.  (I thought that thinking I’ve done something when all I’ve done is thought about it was just me.  I feel better now.

  • Ah yes, good addition. 

  • Thanks for this post, Bruce. Nice steal. I think it is very well said and points to many truths about leadership, human behavior, and our response to it. I would add one additional point that I think is a big part of the reaction to such changes in things like Facebook:

    7. People do not like to LOSE something. When making change, pay attention to what is lost. Facebook does not do this. When they add new functions to the News Feed, they remove options that one used to have (like filtering posts one one’s wall to show all posts or only those by the profile person, or removing the choice to see a real-time showing of all news versus selected, or putting in the smart chat list but 1. not leaving the old way as an option and 2. not allowing the use of lists to sort the chat list). There are numerous things that have disappeared from Facebook over the years with their changes. That’s where I personally get most disappointed. I get used to using a feature, and then suddenly they take it away in favor of a different feature that doesn’t allow the same functions. Apple doesn’t do this, which is why I think the trust is there. They don’t add a front-facing camera, and take away the old camera. New innovations are built upon the old ones, rather than just replacing them. Persons in leadership roles need to pay attention to what is either taken away, lost, or sacrificed in order to usher in new change. Sometimes a replacement is needed in the form of an upgrade, but other times a feature is dropped that is a key component for others’ use. I think that people react negatively to a loss – whether it is loss of family, physical ability, access to something, job, stuff, facebook features, or hair.

  • Revfritz

    Excellent, thought-provoking piece, Bruce, especially the observation about Apple’s ability to make people look forward to change. We spend so much planning energy on expecting resistance to change that it’s dissonant to hear of an organization that can engender excitement about it. That’s worth a lot more analysis. Blessings, Fritz