Bruce Reyes Chow: What Leaders Can Learn about Change from FaceBook

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 kickedGoogle+ 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.

[Taken with the author's permission from his blog at Originally posted 9/21/2011]